If there was a prize for ‘Most Unlikely Subject for a Comedy’, the death of Russian premier Joseph Stalin would probably figure on the list of prime contenders. I mean, how amusing can that actually be? But Armando Iannucci clearly isn’t interested in such preconceptions. Against all the odds, he’s fashioned a funny and subversive entertainment from this unpromising source, based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury.
It’s March, 1953, and Russia is cowering under the brutal regime of ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin. People can be rounded up and shot for the most spurious of reasons – perhaps they’re intellectuals. Perhaps they belong to the wrong organisation. Perhaps their faces just don’t quite fit. The atmosphere of paranoia is amply portrayed in the film’s opening sequence, where radio director Comrade Andryev (Paddy Considine), is forced to restage a live performance by a symphony orchestra, simply because Stalin has phoned up and asked for a recording of it – and unfortunately no such recording has actually been made. ‘Don’t worry,’ Andryev assures his bemused audience as he ushers them frantically back to their seats. ‘You won’t be killed. I promise.’
Armando Iannucci’s comedy of terrors is a brave and wonderfully assured undertaking, finding comic mileage in the absurdity of day-to-day existence under the jackboot of a tyrant – and from the unexpected possibilities that are unleashed when that tyranny finally comes to an end. When Stalin unexpectedly drops dead from a heart attack, the various members of his government begin the complex task of jockeying for position in the new order and the results are a joy to behold.
The film has been criticised in some quarters for its lack of authenticity, but to be fair, there’s no real attempt to make it feel authentic. Characters talk in a mix of accents from regional British to (in the case of Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Krushchev) broad American, and the script misses no opportunity to go for a well-timed belly laugh.
The cast is stellar – I particularly like Simon Russell Beale as head of the secret police, Lavrentiy Beria, a smiling assassin who hides his vile nature under a mask of cheerful bonhomie. Jeffrey Tambour is also excellent as Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s second in command, who suddenly finds himself simultaneously having to lead the country in its collective grief and incapable of coming to a rational decision about anything. Rupert Friend has a lot of fun with the role of Vassily, Stalin’s loose-canon, vodka-swilling son. But the film’s undoubted comic highlight is Jason Isaacs as straight talking ‘Marshall of the Soviet Union’, Georgy Zhukov, the hilarity aided no end by the fact that he talks with a pronounced Yorkshire accent. I’ve no idea why that’s so funny, it just is.
Okay, so this isn’t quite the comic masterpiece that some have dubbed it. The film suffers somewhat from the age-old problem of having nobody in particular to root for, since they all appear to be lying, double-dealing creeps – unless of course, you count Olga Kurylenko’s Maria Yudina, a concert pianist who seems to be the only person in the film brave enough to speak her mind about Stalin’s cruelty; but hers is a cameo role, acted out on the sidelines. The only other character we remotely care about is Stalin’s hapless daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), who can only watch the carnage that unfolds in the wake of her father’s death and hope against hope that she’ll somehow make it out of there alive.
Weighing in at a relatively sprightly 106 minutes, The Death of Stalin is a clever and accomplished movie, well worth investigating. This is Iannucci playing to his strengths as a political satirist and mostly coming up with the goods. Interesting though, that despite a script peppered with crackling dialogue, the film’s funniest scene is an entirely visual one. Go figure.