The Death of Stalin
The latest film from the man behind The Thick of It and Veep is a provocative Soviet comedy with plenty of modern parallels.
UPDATE, October 7, 2020: The Death of Stalin is available to stream via Neon.
"I can't remember who's dead and who isn't," remarks a Soviet minister in The Death of Stalin, in what's actually one of the movie's tamer jokes. Guards tell each other to ignore a noise from the leader's office, because even acknowledging it would likely get them killed. Lackeys remark that all the best doctors are either in the gulag or dead. Generals enter the room asking "what's a war hero got to do to get some lubrication around here?" The list goes on. If you're going to make fun of the titular event and its aftermath, then there's no point being coy about it. And given that Veep, In the Loop and The Thick of It satirist Armando Iannucci is behind this fiercely, blackly funny film, viewers can be assured that it doesn't hold back.
It's Moscow, circa 1953. Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) falls to the floor, and Russia's Politburo don't quite know what to do. Not that deputy Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), party head Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) or secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) can admit it, either publicly or privately. After three decades of Stalinist rule by fear, intimidation and executing anyone who expresses even the slightest opposition, the country's top brass are only certain of two things. Firstly, they can't trust anyone at all, not even each other. And secondly, if they show any sign of weakness or disloyalty, they'll end up stabbed in the back and six feet under themselves. Hell, the latter will probably happen anyway.
So begins The Death of Stalin, a movie that takes inspiration from history, is filmed with the fitting slickness of propaganda, and really couldn't be more timely. It's a political farce about tyrannical leaders, slippery cronies and a nation in turmoil. It's also a portrait of a government wedded to its own version of the truth at any cost, and acting absolutely mercilessly in dispensing with anyone who disagrees. Finally, it's a flick about blustering men pretending they're stronger and bolder than they are, while whipping up paranoid hysteria to hide their failings. This should all sound familiar, and there's plenty more modern-day parallels where they came from.
Yes, Iannucci is at it again in his usual uproarious fashion, slinging gags like weapons and flinging devastating one-liners like Molotov cocktails. (If you're wondering, the bomb did indeed get its name from Palin's character). Tackling Stalin's murderous regime, corrupt wheeling and dealing, and crafty offsiders, the filmmaker keeps one eye on the past and the other on contemporary times. Whether he's sticking with fiction or twisting days of old, the British writer-director has always had a knack for mirroring reality. That mightn't appear particularly hard given that Iannucci routinely turns the halls of power into caustic comedies, but no one manages the feat quite like him. He says "fuckety bye" to good taste and a rousing hello to savage parodies that simply wouldn't be as funny if they didn't seem both outlandish and accurate.
Provocative, perceptive writing may be a sizeable part of The Death of Stalin's charm, but the film's cast do just as much heavy lifting. In particular, Buscemi's Khrushchev ranks among Iannucci's best characters — think The Thick of It's Malcolm Tucker in a literal life-or-death scenario, with equally oily schemes and rapid-fire insults. That said, the movie is an ensemble affair, including a hilarious Rupert Friend and a stern Andrea Riseborough as Stalin's children, plus Jason Isaacs as a gloriously puffed-up military head. As characters bicker over Stalin's body and banter about allegiance to the state, the corresponding performances prove a masterclass in devilishly, hysterically bleak comedy. If it all seems as brilliant as it does absurd, then this is your kind of film.