Director: Armando Iannucci
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Jeffrey Tambor
Political absolutism, bureaucracy, and torture; they’re not what immediately comes to mind when you’re thinking about great comedy, and yet filmmakers have proven otherwise time and time again. In the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, Woody Allen’s Bananas and, more recently, The Dictator and The Interview, these themes have featured prominently, played for laughs despite their sometimes scary implications. The Death of Stalin, the new comedy-drama directed by Armando Iannucci, continues in this tradition, comically capturing the Soviets’ scramble for power following the death of Joseph Stalin. The tone is unmistakably Soviet, with an appropriately grand score from Christopher Willis and visuals filmed on-location in Russia.
The story itself is a foregone conclusion, of course; the film is based on historical events of an international importance and so there is not much room for manoeuvre in that sense. Within the plot, however, the sly scheming of Stalin’s inner-circle – most notably Khrushchev (a fantastic and farcical performance from Steve Buscemi) and Beria (Simon Russell Beale) – provides more than enough twists and turns, even if it doesn’t strictly adhere to what really went on behind closed doors. Besides, the main draw of the film is undoubtedly its humour, which is more a result of the megalomania and incompetencies of the Russian bureaucrats than of the story which, in all honesty, could probably have been condensed a little.
Stalin is dead!
It’s difficult to think of anyone more qualified to confront themes of megalomania and bureaucracy than the team behind The Death of Stalin. Based on the French graphic novel La Mort de Staline, the screenplay brings Armando Iannucci together with frequent collaborator David Schneider (of Alan Partridge fame) and The Thick of It co-writer Ian Martin, writing for a star-studded cast including Jeffrey Tambor and (hello to) Jason Isaacs. It all pays off, too; each scene is saturated with the dark, satirical humour of the politicians vying for power and each line lands perfectly, aided by the absence of dodgy Russian voices, with each actor sticking to their own native accent. Slapstick humour, too, is executed to hilarious effect, especially in the scenes involving Stalin’s corpse.
Beyond the jokes, however, the irony and absurdity, as well as the darker social commentary, that lays the foundation for The Death of Stalin is rooted in reality. In the opening scene of the film, Paddy Considine’s ‘Comrade Andreyev’ is asked to provide a recording of a concert he has just broadcasted by radio, at the behest of Stalin himself. Having not recorded the concert, he must force the audience back into their seats and bring in a new composer, dressed only in his pyjamas, after the original is incapacitated. Whilst this may seem a little far-fetched, it is in fact reported to be factually accurate, as is the paradoxical mourning of Stalin’s malnourished prisoners, upon learning of his death.
Though the runtime could, perhaps, have been shorter – by the end, it felt as if there was some re-trodden ground – The Death of Stalin is a brilliantly executed political farce that provides a much-needed (if slightly caricatured) insight into the inner workings of an authoritarian government.