Armando Iannucci must be sick of having to chuckle along with the observation that real-life political figures are now far more abhorrent the characters of his brilliant series The Thick of It. Perhaps this has played a part in his decision to retreat form the contemporary settings of The Thick of It and Veep into the murky world of 1950’s Soviet Russia. The resulting film is a star-studded romp which follows the turbulent and murderous week in the Kremlin after the death of communist dictator Stalin.
The death of Stalin (hey, that’s the name of the flm!) sparks a succession crisis amongst his top ministers, with Georgy Malenkov (played to weasely perfection by Jeffery Tambor) installed as the de facto leader but he is the only Russian unaware that the true struggle for leadership is between Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi) and spymaster Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). A raft of comedy greats join this trio, ranging from Michael Palin as party devotee Molotov and Paddy Considine as the panicked Head of Radio Moscow trying to restage a concert after Stalin requests a recording. Jason Isaacs turns up in time to steal the show as the only man in Russia seemingly able to laugh at the situation and the idiotic politicians.
The Death of Stalin has its hilarious moments but it is also surprisingly dark and sometimes unpleasant. The comedy is constantly underpinned by the characters’ justifiable fear of being tortured and killed. Great pains are clearly made to remind us of the huge numbers of people who were tortured, killed and imprisoned by Stalin’s regime under direction from the ghoulish Beria. The spymaster brags of his sexual deviance and his rumoured paedophilia is discussed unflinchingly. With this in mind, I can see how some audiences might not get on with the film; the subject matter is tricky but I think the film justifies the comedy by not looking away from the era’s crimes.
The Death of Stalin is a good addition to the Iannucci canon and what it occasionally lacks in laugh out loud moments is made up for with the outstanding cast.