Most of Armando Iannucci’s work (“Veep”, “In The Loop”) is an out and out laugh riot, usually depicting the act of trying to govern mired in institutional ineptitude the same way Terry Gilliam’s Brazil was a magical fantasy story trying to happen in a world of bureaucrats and red tape.
But “The Death of Stalin” is something quite different. It might have been possible to make something in Iannucci’s signature style that was all laughs while looking at a regime known for its murderous brutality or it might not, but the director doesn’t shy away from it. Several scenes in the film are throat-tighteningly tense and border on genuinely upsetting.
Some of the critical comment about the film has been about how the comedy of political self-interest and backstabbing fits perfectly with the horror of totalitarianism and how one provides a relief valve for the other, but they actually don’t sit side by side quite so comfortably. Whether it should have been a slapstick parody by Iannucci himself or a serious drama about the power-wrangling and mass murder the Soviet regime prompted by another director is hard to say.
That said, the comedy is right up there with his other films. The musical emergency at the beginning, the unanimous vote at Presidium proceedings and the pathetic attempts to court power (Kruschev and Beria in a full-on sprint to be the first one to reach Stalin’s daughter and offer her a ride away from the palace to win her favour) are all laugh out loud, endlessly replayable moments.
It’s the height of Stalin’s iron fisted grip in the early 1950s. Lists of everyone from peasants and commoners to political enemies and just people who did something Stalin didn’t like are rounded up in the night and sent to the gulags to die slowly or be shot straight away. But when the tyrannical leader (Adrian McLoughlin) keels over from the cerebral haemorrhage that would kill him a few days later, it leaves a vacuum the members of the Communist Party’s senior leadership race to fill.
There’s the milquetoast Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), the weaselly Kruschev (Steve Buscemi), the pug-like but fearsome Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and the skittish but devoted Molotov (Michael Palin), and they’re all surrounded by Stalin’s adult children, bull-in-a-china-shop Red Army Field Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) and anyone else they can draw into the alliances and double crosses that ensue to fill Stalin’s shoes.
It’s quite a feat keeping so many characters and plotlines in the air, but Iannucci’s script does so as effortlessly as the ad libbing his actors perform. In fact, that leads to another aspect of the film you might find jarring, and that’s everyone speaking in their native accents. Stalin sounds like an East End fishmonger, Kruschev is all Buscemi’s nasal American twang and Zhukov sounds like he teleported in from Monty Python’s Four Yorkshireman sketch.
Iannucci didn’t want anyone to use a practised Russian accent in case it distracted him or her from any usable ad libbing that occurred to them during shooting, and while the result probably makes for a funnier movie, it’s still a little hard to get past. Still, much like “Logan Lucky” in Steven Soderbergh’s canon, an Armando Iannucci movie that isn’t his best work is still magnitudes better than most screen comedy.