Sam Asher reviews Iannucci’s period comedy.
The Death of Stalin, Armando Iannucci’s latest comedy, follows the power vacuum in the Soviet Union caused by said death in 1953. As is typical of Iannucci’s work (including British comedy The Thick of It and its American cousin Veep), the film is a riotous, expletive-filled tale of political plotting, backstabbing, and deception. We primarily follow Nikita Kruschev – Steve Buscemi in perhaps his best on-screen role in the last decade – and Lavrentiy Beria – an even more convincing prosthetic-covered Simon Russell Beale. Khruschev, our protagonist (to the extent any of the Soviet politburo can be), is a savvy and relatable member of the Council of Ministers around which the movie rotates. Beria, a sadistic sexual predator and head of the secret police, is decidedly the antagonist. (For context, Stalin himself once described Beria as “our Himmler”.) Initially introduced to us as friends, it is quickly made clear the two have deeply conflicting ambitions.
It is the character of Beria, as well as the nature of post-war Russia in general, that bring an unusual edge to what is otherwise textbook Iannucci. The Death of Stalin delves into rather more serious subject matter than he often covers – assassination, gulags, and sexual violence all feature, handled at different times with either sombre retrospection or as background for a blasé gag (and sometimes both). In fact it is this seriousness – the constant, palpable threat of being sentenced to death – that gives the context to many of the film’s genuinely hilarious moments, such as the theatrical and campy mourning of each of the Committee as they approach Stalin’s corpse, all the while watched with quiet amusement by Beria.
The film is very aware of the ridiculousness, and perhaps even misfortune, of the predicament our “heroes” find themselves in. “This is just fucking wordplay”, cries Kruschev late in the movie, as Beria points out his deviation from the party line. “If this was the old Soviet Russia”, Beria replies, “you would be killed”. Not all the laughs, however, are delivered from the tense threat of execution. Others derive simply from witty dialogue and the usual raving, curse driven explosions we have come to expect from the man who brought us Malcolm Tucker. In particular, these are delivered by Jason Isaacs’ imposing and nonchalant war hero Georgy Zhukov, and Rupert Friend’s drunken, arrogant Vasily Stalin.
The comedic value is greatly enhanced by the complete absence of a Russian accent anywhere in the movie, despite the clear and consistent grounding in historical Russia, and the wonderful Britishness of the swearing. Hearing the son of the “Man of Steel” scream “Play better, you clattering fannies” while on ice skates is a clear highlight, as is every scene in which we are treated to the wonderful Yorkshire accent of Zhukov.
Other cast highlights include Monty Python star Michael Palin’s wild-eyed and often confused Vyacheslav Molotov, and Adrian McLoughlin’s brief role as Stalin himself. The movie is – as one might expect from the star-studded cast – excellently acted throughout. Buscemi and Beale carry the weight of leading with ease, and the supporting cast remain true to their silly-but-sometimes-serious characters. They are let down only mildly by Andrea Riseborough, appearing as Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, whose delirium is somewhat less convincing than that of her peers.
Competently edited and well-directed, with a brilliantly pompous score by Christopher Willis, The Death of Stalin only feels weak in some of its darker moments. Its very male characters have distressingly little to say about Beria’s paedophilia and rape until it suits them – and the movie itself seems to give us one moment of implied sexual violence for no real reason other than to make even clearer that Beria is a very bad man, something already well-established. That, and a few other quick and indifferent references to non-consensual sex, serve only to drive home that our characters are not the charmingly moronic individuals they seem to be, but disturbed and calculating social climbers – and this takes away from the way the movie reveals the same fact later, in a brilliantly acted monologue from Simon Russell Beale.
In spite of this, violence is handled well by Iannucci. It is, although fleeting, brutal and uncompromising when it arrives – unexpected for an otherwise reasonably lighthearted comedy. This is no more true than in the genuinely uncomfortable finale. This serves the narrative well, and reminds the audience that despite the farce of the political dance they have witnessed, the Committee’s actions had tangible and horrific consequences for many.
This final catharsis is perhaps not what one would expect walking into a comedy, but it is simply the natural conclusion of Iannucci’s hilarious but poignant writing. The jokes hit far more often than they miss, and the social commentary is scathing. The two reinforce each other to create an excellent film.
The Death of Stalin is out now in UK cinemas. Check out the trailer below: