The Daily Telegraph calls writer/director Armando Iannucci “the hardman of political satire.” As the creator of sardonic films and TV shows like “In the Loop” and “Veep” he’s a vitally caustic comic presence.
As the film begins it’s 1953 and Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), the second leader of the Soviet Union, is alive and well. Under his watch death squads are rounding up his enemies, executions are common and the mere mention of his name strikes fear into the hearts of the people. The Central Committee, surround him. There’s the scheming Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), the pompous Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Old Bolshevik Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). When he suffers a stroke everything changes as his inner circle engage in a power struggle that will determine not only their futures but also the future of the Soviet Union.
The idea of chaos in the halls of power, though set sixty-five years in the past, feels almost ripped from the headlines. With jet black humour “The Death of Stalin” supercharges the farcical elements of a very dark time in history. With the cast using their natural accents—no one here tries to sound Russian—it feels surreal, like Monty Python gone amok. There’s doublespeak, jealousy and sight gags galore as this band of yes-men bumble around in an attempt to seize the Kremlin in the days following their leader’s passing.
Iannucci avoids the danger of trivializing the very real-life tragedy of the story—you hear gunshots off screen for much of the first half of the film—by not glorifying the villains. He takes a sharp knife to the reputations of Stalin, Khrushchev et al, portraying all of them as spoiled incompetents capable only of looking out for number one. In this historical context that approach works to show how absolute power corrupts absolutely.
“The Death of Stalin” is an audacious reimagining of history. Strong comic performances are highlighted in a film that is both frightening and funny at the same time.