This savagely funny farce is peppered with cracking one-liners and scathingly hilarious dialogue, yet the terrifying reality of life in Stalinist Russia is never far from the satirical surface.
Known for his BBC TV series on British politics The Thick of It and its spin-off Oscar-nominated film In the Loop, Iannucci is most famous for his vitriolic commentary on contemporary politics. No surprise, then, that while The Death of Stalin focuses on (duh!) the death of Stalin, there’s an inevitable nod and wink to more recent goings-on.
When Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) – lover of opera, Westerns and crimes against humanity – dies, his sycophantic inner circle is thrown into turmoil. Like two Donald Trumps at a NATO meeting, Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and head of the secret police Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) start elbowing their way to the front, both hoping to take over as general secretary.
As “reformer” Khrushchev, Buscemi out-Buscemis himself with his usual blend of wry humour and rubber-faced horseplay (always a joy to watch). Beale’s Beria is an excellent foil to this, his understated disdain and casual violence winning him a well-deserved BIFA for best supporting actor.
Jeffrey Tambor is delightfully dry as Malenkov, ambitious but not as cunning as Khrushchev and Beria, while the naïve and sometimes idiotic Molotov is played with full Python-esque pathos by Michael Palin. Both are outshone, however, by Jason Isaacs, who plays Russian army General Zhukov with a broad northern English accent and all the machismo of Liam Gallagher and Alex Ferguson combined.
A kind of ménage-à-trois between Animal Farm, Mad As Hell and Night of the Living Dead, The Death of Stalin provokes guffaws of laughter alongside gasps of horror as Khrushchev picks out curtains for Stalin’s funeral and Beria tortures and rapes his way through the gulags.
This delicate balance of humour and horror is encapsulated in the music that plays as the film’s end-credits roll (accompanied by photographic images of Stalin-era crowds, the faces obliterated by scribbles of black marker). The “Comedy of Terrors” track (Christopher Willis) veers between the jolly parping of a buffoonish brass band and the cacophonic clamour of manic clowns, a combination familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to global politics of late.
The track is so cleverly composed it could easily have been written by Shostakovich himself, yet it somehow manages to reference both Stalinist and contemporary politics. It’s this attention to detail and careful juggling of apparently incongruous factors that makes Iannucci one of the best political satirists of our time and The Death of Stalin a tragi-comic delight.
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