Armando Iannucci has made a career of satirising modern-day politics and the buffoonery of decision-makers, on TV in The Thick of It and Veep and on the big screen in 2009’s In The Loop. His latest film, The Death of Stalin, takes a similar approach, albeit with a real historical backdrop forming the fabric of the story. Set around the demise of Soviet despot leader Joseph Stalin, and the immediate furore that followed as those around him scrambled for power, it’s a darkly funny piece liable to make you feel guilty for laughing at such monsters.
Adapted from the graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, it’s an unlikely source for humour, but Iannucci mines it relentlessly, aided by one of the best comic ensembles formed this year. Amongst them, as senior Communist Party members, Transparent star Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov, Steve Buscemi as future premier Nikita Khrushchev, the beloved Michael Palin as foreign affairs minister Vyacheslav Molotov and acclaimed stage actor Simon Russell Beale in terrifying form as security chief Lavrentiy Beria.
When Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) keels over in his office, slipping into a short-lived coma before dying, the film takes flight as chaos reigns – a funeral must be arranged, a new leader must be found. It’s a simple idea, perfectly tailored to Iannucci’s verbal jousting and hilarious insult-driven dialogue. Some may find it distasteful – as the film makes very clear, violence and torture was a reality used to keep order – but those who revel in Iannucci’s coal-black humour will find it savagely funny.
Aside from those already mentioned, the cast is rounded out by some superb performers – including Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend as Stalin’s grown-up offspring and Jason Isaacs, who arrives in the final third like a hand-grenade as the Soviet Red Army chief, Georgy Zhukov. That he speaks all his lines in a broad Yorkshire accent shows that Iannucci isn’t exactly going for realism here, but it adds to the absurdist tone. If it’s not entirely successful throughout, Iannucci finding it hard to sustain the rocket-fuelled pace, it’s still a smart, stinging satire and one of the best British comedies this year.
The Death of Stalin opens in cinemas on 20 October. For more information, visit: www.deathofstalin.co.uk
1. Still from The Death of Stalin.