Armando Iannucci / UK/France / 2017 / 106 mins
Released at the Cameo cinema from Fri 20 Oct 2017
According to Armando Iannucci, the only problems with making light of sensitive subjects arise when “the joke isn’t that good, and maybe if it had been better there wouldn’t have been that much of a fuss.” With The Death of Stalin, the critically acclaimed writer and director puts that theory to the test by satirising a regime that “purged” millions of innocents over its course, with undeniably hilarious but morally troublesome results.
As the title outlines, the story deals with the final days of Stalin’s life and the tumultuous aftermath of his death, as generals, ministers and assorted sycophants fall over themselves to head up the party and keep their own head off the chopping block. The slapdash ineptitude of the upper echelons of world politics and the relentless conspiring and plotting are reminiscent of his earlier work The Thick of It and its American offshoot Veep; the bloodshed and barbarity are not.
Whereas a gaffe or misstep in his previous television and film creations led to egg on the face, here it leads to blood on the carpet. The ruthless violence which acts as a backdrop (and a denouement) to the slapstick is intentionally jarring and raises uncomfortable questions about what is and isn’t okay to laugh at… but still elicits belly laughs by the barrel load all the same. Regardless of the moral ambiguity onscreen, the writing and characterisation is superbly poised.
This is, in large part, thanks to an unlikely but impeccable assortment of acting talent. Spearheading the savagery is Simon Russell Beale’s Beria, a heartless strategist with only his own welfare in mind. Steve Buscemi is in fine fettle as Kruschev, the watered-down but equally intractable and ruthless rival, while Jeffrey Tambor is the weak-willed deputy Malenkov who should never have succeeded to the hotseat. Michael Palin is a brilliantly befuddled slave to the party, willing to throw his wife and himself under the bus, while Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend play Stalin’s two children – one distraught, the other a dipsomaniac.
The chemistry between these superb actors is the bedrock for the comedy, and it’s lent an extra edge by the decision to take a page out of Sean Connery’s Hunt for the Red October book with regards to accents. There’s not a Russian inflection within earshot, and the incongruousness of American and English twangs is underscored by Jason Isaacs’ broad Yorkshire brogue as General Zhukov. As well as circling back to Iannucci’s earlier work, the English accents might even suggest parallels in today’s Western governments (though, thankfully, Theresa and even Trump are a far cry from the Great Terror).
It’s maybe this suggestion which is most terrifying of all. It has been said that laughter is the most powerful weapon against tyranny, but when that tyranny is armed to the teeth it might be difficult to maintain a comic demeanour. To his credit, Iannucci does an exemplary job of ridiculing those responsible, but when the laughter dies down, the dark brutality of human nature is still lurking in the shadows.