Reviewed by Sean Egan
Eliciting audience laughter from inside a secret police torture chamber is no easy task but Iannucci manages to find moments of dark humour in otherwise stomach-churning circumstances.
The veteran political satirist who skewered the shallow spectacle of modern politics in his tv gems: Veep and The Thick of It portrays the frantic struggle for power following Stalin’s death in 1953. The plot is driven by the increasingly slap-dash machinations of jittery Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi) and the sinister secret police boss Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russel Beale).
The Central Committee is also made up of Molotov, ably portrayed by Michael Palin as a doddering relic whose mind is warped by incomprehensible doctrine and rhetoric, unable to parse reality from the official party line. Jeffery Tambor excels as Stalin’s deputy Malenkov whose ineptitude and vanity provide some of the film’s most reliable laughs.
This wealth of experienced actors provides the framework for Iannucci’s signature rapid fire comic dialogue and the film maintains an at times breathless pace allowing the audience to feel drawn into hair brained coup attempts and Central Committee scheming.
Slapstick moments, like the Central Committee’s attempt to carry a urine soaked Stalin’s not quite corpse through his country estate while screaming at errant servants, never quite undermine the dread that permeates the film. In fact, it’s among the blackest comedies I’ve seen in quite some time, with scenes in which Beria struts through the concrete bunkers used to hold prisoners being legitimately bone chilling.
Iannucci does an excellent job illustrating the level of ever present dread felt by ordinary Soviet citizens. When we see a fleet of secret police cars and trucks fan out over the city to pull people from their beds never to be seen again we understand how this horror has become a part of everyday life for millions.
The film’s art direction should also be recognised. Stalin’s protracted funeral is an obscene pageant of maximalist red banners, absurd floral displays and outsized, choreographed grief. Malenkov’s increasingly bizarre outfits and Khrushchev’s brown mottled apartment fixtures also highlight the contradictions of Soviet life.
This historically accurate world populated by actors speaking in their own American and British accents could seem jarring, but it only enhances the comic absurdity that drives the film.
The Death of Stalin is a madcap comedy with a plot that hurtles along aided by a keen sense of pacing. But despite the heroic efforts of its cast and its sharp, incisive script it never rises above its darker moments. It manages to be a harrowing kind of comedy, but one well worth your time.