Politics and farce are often indistinguishable. Armando Iannucci, creator of hit TV series Veep and its British counterpart The Thick of It, is a specialist in skewering governmental dysfunction, and his take on the last days and demise of Soviet despot Joseph Stalin in 1953 is certainly bold, and often brilliant.
Finding humour in such dark subject matter might sound as unlikely as making a comedy about Hitler, but with a French graphic novel as the source, Iannucci constructs a wonderfully deadpan insight into the panic and power struggle that ensues following Stalin’s sudden death from a brain haemorrhage.
The Death of Stalin never makes light of this brutal regime and its atrocities, instead finding absurdity in situations it indirectly creates,
like the inability to find a good doctor because they’ve all been shipped off to a Siberian Gulag. The ever present threat of execution is also deftly handled, with radio host (Paddy Considine) scrambling to provide Stalin with a recording of a live classical concert by staging an impromptu encore of the entire performance.
Focusing on the sycophantic Central Committee, which is thrown into chaos with a funeral to arrange, a successor to appoint, and lists of enemies to be substituted, the film becomes a showcase for a fantastic ensemble cast. (Iannucci has a flair for precise casting, as anyone who’s watched Peter Capaldi cursing his way through an episode of The Thick of It will agree).
Of the bumbling bureaucrats, Jeffrey Tambor’s vain and clueless Georgy Malenkov, Steve Buscemi’s blustering Nikita Khrushchev, and Simon Russell Beale’s conniving chief of Soviet security are standouts in the art of subtlety. Conversely, Jason Isaacs and Rupert Friend go over the top as the Red Army leader and Stalin’s son, respectively, with their wonderfully incongruous accents accentuating the film’s dry wit.
Demonstrating that with great power also comes great incompetence, The Death of Stalin succeeds in turning a tricky premise into a biting political and historical satire that will stick with you long after the closing credits.
In cinemas: March 29, 2018
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale
Directed by: Armando Iannucci