Armando Iannucci’s new film, The Death of Stalin, deals with the Stalinist purges of the 1950s and the political power plays of the Politburo in the two days before Stalin’s funeral.
It’s serious, historical drama. But this is Iannucci (In the Loop, Veep, The Thick of It), who is a dab hand at portraying hysterical politics — in both senses. In his hands, The Death of Stalin manages to be many things: puerile, perturbing, silly, shocking, entertaining, and very funny.
Joseph Stalin, played as a thuggish cockney by Adrian McLoughlin (The Hour, New Tricks, Jam & Jerusalem) ruled the Soviet Union for thirty-three years, a reign of terror he enacted through his security forces. His authority was absolute and those who did not obey faced the very real consequence of being “disappeared”.
The paranoia this induced is shown to absurd effect in the opening concert scene, where Stalin calls to request a copy of the night’s performance. Having not been recorded, the programme director (Paddy Considine — The Girl with All the Gifts, Macbeth, Hot Fuzz) must rustle up an audience and persuade the orchestra to perform again.
Similarly, we are introduced to Stalin and his Politburo in an energetic scene that juxtaposes heartlessness and slapstick — signing death warrants while laughing at his ministers’ cruel stories that are intended to impress him. Yet, when he is suddenly struck down by a heart attack, the wolves circle fast — playing games, taking sides, manoeuvring for power — in a most entertaining display.
Iannucci is the political dissectionist of our time, showcasing the frailties and upsets of our apparently wise governing bodies through comedy and satire. The Death of Stalin is a perfect vehicle for his acerbic judgement. The tone is well handled — between uproarious and alarming. There is — as expected — comedy, but it does not shy from violence, though shown mostly off-screen or glimpsed in the background before the camera moves away.
The constant reminder of Stalin’s hit squads killing millions off set, as it were, makes this a black brew indeed. Jeffrey Tambor’s Malenkov sums things up, “I’m exhausted. I don’t know who’s dead or alive, anymore.”
Fortunately, Iannucci has a handle on the absurd and can spin the drama to comedy on a dime to give us scenes of embarrassment or farce, or some delightful visual gags centring around the committee members’ pursuit for comeuppance. The script, by Iannucci and regular co-writers David Schneider (The Day Today, I’m Alan Partridge) and Ian Martin (The Thick of It, Veep), has such an effective line in putdowns that it makes you want to pause to write them down.
It is peerlessly cast. Simon Russell Beale (My Week with Marilyn, The Deep Blue Sea, Penny Dreadful) as Beria, Head of Security Forces, is arguably the standout. Charming, yet with real threat behind his casual persona, he is calculating and ruthless.
In an early scene, he manages a knife-edge of hilarity and shock, handing a hit list to a guard with orders to mockingly display the deceased. Yet he also does the most good, reversing many of Stalin’s tyrannical rulings. In a sense, it is his film — he drives it through naked ambition to its disturbing climax.
Jeffrey Tambor stars as Malenkov
Andrea Riseborough (Brighton Rock, Shadow Dancer, Oblivion) as Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, sweeps in on his death, weepy and viciously critical of the committee’s farcical manipulations. Steve Buscemi (Reservoir Dogs, Fargo, Boardwalk Empire) as Khrushchev is weedy and conniving, always on the back-foot, driven by panic; but with dramatic irony, we know he is history’s winner.
Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development, Transparent, The Accountant) as Malenkov is a weak-willed, timid bureaucrat, who is next in line for power, and there is much humour in his every decision needing the committee vote.
Michael Palin’s (Brazil, A Fish Called Wanda, Monty Python’s Flying Circus) casting as Molotov revels in some excruciating Pythonesque moments. Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter, Black Hawk Down, Star Trek: Discovery) storms through as General Zhukov, practically gnashing his teeth.
Even the supporting cast has their small moments and stories: a soldier with a stutter who is tirelessly mocked by Beria, a son ratting out his abusive father to the secret police without a word of dialogue. It is these background characters who give the film pathos.
Despite the gravity of events, everyone is clearly having a ball. The decision to ignore Russian accents is a wise one, as, badly done, they can distract. This means it does feel decidedly English and a mite staged, but we can suspend our disbelief with such a show of conviction.
The Death of Stalin is laugh-out-loud funny and disturbing, often at the same time. It manages the borderline feat of respecting history while mercilessly skewering it. It is Iannucci’s most mature film to date, and recommended viewing.
Are you a big fan of political satire? What are your recommendations for the genre?
Image credits: Quad Productions, Main Journey, Madman Entertainment.