Director: Armando Iannucci
Cast: Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Jason Isaacs, Rupert Friend, Paul Whitehouse
Release Date: October 20th
What happens when your authoritarian regime is built around a cult of personality that suddenly collapses in a pool of its own urine? Pithily marketed as a ‘comedy of terrors,’ Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin seeks to show that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The film begins in 1953 when Soviet leader Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) succumbs to a massive stroke. His cabinet scramble and scheme to suitably commemorate their leader while determining their nation’s future. Even with his demonstrative command of political satire, Iannucci is undoubtedly treading in dangerous territory. Spinning comedy from the Stalinist regime runs the risk of trivialising or even excusing its barbarism and cruelty. Yet he perfectly gauges the tone throughout, balancing the humour and horror of powerful men whose moral compasses are warped too far to the left.
The film is frequently very funny, but never without an edge. The opening vignette starring Paddy Considine as a desperate, bumbling radio producer, which is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the entire film, perfectly. Having failed to record a recent recital which Stalin is now requesting, we follow his madcap dash to persuade audience members, musicians, and a sleepy conductor – who believes he is about to be arrested/executed – to recreate it. This is a ludicrous situation, but one wrong move could be lethal; and that idea sustains much of the rest of the movie.
Fans of Veep and In The Loop will find much to like here. As ever, Iannucci perfectly captures the weak link in the chain, the centre of a venn diagram labelled ‘chaos’ where human frailty meets the rule of law. The period setting is clearly a challenge – quite often, the scathing topical take-downs and popular culture-inspired nicknames usually doled out by the likes of Malcolm Tucker are simply substituted with explosive expletive delivery.
Yet those vocalising these expletives make it work – the cast is simply superb. Iannucci takes the unusual but completely welcome measure of having his actors perform in their own native accents. This often leads to deeper, richer ways to read each character. Steve Buscemi retains the New York twang of a quietly-scheming mobster, a lá Nucky Thompson, perfectly befitting to his role here as Nikita Khruschev; Adrian McLoughlin’s cockney Stalin exudes seediness, danger, but a certain boisterous charm. Andrea Riseborough provides Svetlana Stalin with an emphatic vulnerability, while Rupert Friend’s Oxfordshire pompousness suits the spoiled, outspoken alcoholic Vasily Stalin. Side note: who knew Rupert Friend was funny?! His performance is an impeccable display of British brattishness.
There’s also humour in the attempts to balance the committee’s reverence for their ‘great leader’ with their own desires and ambition to subsume his role, or even push back on some policies – and people – that they find personally disagreeable. Yet the film, climaxing with the brutally violent deposition of another committee member doesn’t downplay the true ruthlessness of his comrades, even if its slightly-hysterical tone is somewhat misjudged. (One might say… the execution is imperfect.)
On the whole, The Death of Stalin is a grimly absurdist period piece about floundering authoritarianism. It’s deeply, darkly funny, illuminated by stellar performances from the whole cast. Four red stars and a hyperbolic number of military service medals all around.