Film of the week: The Death of Stalin deflates the corpse of despotism

Armando Iannucci and a crack comedy troupe take a hatchet to the Soviet tyrant’s cult of personality in a period-comedy diversion that’s dependably close to the bone.

Lisa Mullen

from our November 2017 issue

Dermot Crowley as Lazar Kaganovich, Paul Whitehouse as Anastas Mikoyan, Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev and Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov in Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin

Dermot Crowley as Lazar Kaganovich, Paul Whitehouse as Anastas Mikoyan, Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev and Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov in Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci has frequently been admired for the uncanny prescience of his satire, and indeed his depictions of the mendacity and incompetence at the heart of contemporary politics often seem to be several steps ahead of the game. His latest comic masterpiece The Death of Stalin, however, demonstrates that the farcical contortions of morality and logic by which greedy men seek power form a pattern as old as politics itself. Here, the post-war Soviet Union becomes a laboratory where the chemical elements of ambition, stupidity and ruthlessness are combined to make a particularly dangerous and volatile compound. It’s absolutely hilarious… but also, people die.

The root of the comedy is the cult of personality that Stalin has erected around himself, based on the idea that the tiniest affront to his authority can result in instant death. This is concisely demonstrated in the film’s opening segment, which shows the dictator (Adrian McLoughlin) telephoning a radio station to say that he has enjoyed a Mozart concerto and would like a recording of it; panic ensues when the producer (Paddy Considine) realises that no recording has been made. The terrified conductor passes out, another is dragged from his bed to conduct the piece in his pyjamas, and the deeply alarmed audience are locked in the hall so that the concert can be replayed with an identical sense of atmosphere.

This setup – transferred directly from the opening of the graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin on which the film is based – beautifully encapsulates the problem with Stalin’s creaking regime: even before his death, he has created a power vacuum by turning himself into a kind of mythical creature. When, shortly afterwards, he is felled by a stroke, there is a long pause while members of the Presidium muster the courage to utter the treasonous thought that their infallible leader was, in fact, mortal.

Jason Isaacs as Field Marshall Georgy Zhukov

Jason Isaacs as Field Marshall Georgy Zhukov

But then, as the reality gains momentum, a feral survivalism kicks in – and the fun begins. Quickest off the mark is Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), head of the secret police, a puppetmaster with many bloodstained strings to pull. He cannily installs the vain idiot Georgy Malenkov (an enjoyable turn by Jeffrey Tambor) as a placeholder head of state, until he can torture and intimidate his way to power – but he has underestimated Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi).

Khrushchev may not be able to access the secret infrastructures of the state as Beria can, but he is an attentive student both of human nature and of irony, and in the end that counts for more. Our sympathies naturally follow Iannucci’s here: Khrushchev can hardly be described as a white hat, but we side with him because of his clear-eyed acceptance that he is operating inside a madhouse, and because it’s fun to watch his nimble footwork outwitting the heavy-hitting Beria.

Pitching Russell Beale and Buscemi against each other is one of the masterstrokes of casting that make the film such a joy to watch: Russell Beale, brimful of Shakespearean subtlety, has both deeply funny bones and a ready access to the realm of the sinister; Buscemi, sometimes called on to be merely peculiar, reminds us that he is a craftsman with a genius for conjuring sympathy out of the unlikeliest material.

Simon Russell Beale as Lavrenti Beria with Jeffrey Tambor

Simon Russell Beale as Lavrenti Beria with Jeffrey Tambor

Iannucci’s own genius (abetted by co-writers David Schneider and Ian Martin) is the ability to give them lines of perfect comic cadence and deep reservoirs of unspoken intent; they know exactly what to do with them, as do the rest of this superb ensemble. Michael Palin is perfect as Vyacheslav Molotov, a simpering bureaucrat who has decided that the only way to survive Stalin is to sacrifice everything, including his dignity, his autonomy and – oh yes, come to think of it, his wife; Rupert Friend is a revelation as Vasily Stalin, the drunken son who provides some of the broadest slapstick in the piece; and Andrea Riseborough has the only decent female role as Vasily’s sister Svetlana, treated as a pathetic damsel in distress by the men around her but proving to have an astute eye for the real peril of her situation. And then there is a delicious late-stage scene-stealer by Jason Isaacs as General Zhukov, the man of action who delivers the decisive blow to Beria’s scheming.

Much of the visual style – the blood-and-snow palette, the sense of the squirmingly personal caught within the rigid apparatus of state – is clearly inspired by the work of Nury and Robin, but the whipsmart dialogue and deftly syncopated timing are pure Iannucci. The film is uproariously funny but painfully close to the bone in a world where once again the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

 

 

In the November 2017 issue

Room at the top

The Death of Stalin, a viciously funny portrait of the jockeying for power that follows the demise of the Soviet dictator, bears all the hallmarks of the satirical genius of its director Armando Iannucci, showcasing a gallery of slightly rubbish people insulting each other in a hurry. By Ben Walters.

 

→ Buy a print issue
Access the digital edition
→ Subscribe

More from this issue

Find out more

Access the digital edition

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.
Hand-picked.