Review: The squabble for power is funny in The Death of Stalin

Writer-director Armando Iannucci’s Moscow-set black comedy set after the death of the tyrant is genuinely laugh-out-loud and casually chilling with an all-star playing up the absurdity in a wild variety of different accents.

The Death of Stalin (15)

****

Hard as it is to believe now, there was a time when making a black comedy about Stalin’s tyrannical rule and The Great Terror, would’ve have been considered to be in questionable taste.

In 1983, the fledgling Channel 4 was criticised for trivialising it in Red Monarch, a dark farce about Stalin’s reign. These days of course, ghoulish black comedy is our default setting; the way we get through the day.


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Armando Iannucci’s sweary political satire, The Thick Of It, is like one of those game show formats that is franchised off all over the world. Iannucci oversaw the American version, Veep, but every nation could have one.

Now he has moved it into the realms of costume drama with this version of Stalin’s final day and the squabble for power afterward between Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and the head of NKVD secret police Beria (Simon Russell Beale).

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Retrofitting it to the USSR has required some tinkering with the formula. The absurdities are pushed a bit further. While previous Iannucci’s satires went on inside Westminster/Washington bubbles, here the brutal consequences – executions, round ups, rapes - happen on screen. As soon as the main players have moved off screen, armed forces will sweep in to massacre the extras.

When Stalin’s meddling creates unnecessary panic at a live radio recording of a piano concerto, virtuoso soloist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) voices her displeasure in a letter.

When the General Secretary reads her swingeing missive, he collapses and dies.

The following morning, chief of security Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) is first on the grim scene and gathers classified documents that could prove valuable in the coming days.

Close adviser Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) arrives soon afterwards and they are quickly joined by other members of the inner circle including Stalin’s bumbling deputy Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Lazar Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley), defence minister Nikolai Bulganin (Paul Chahidi) and Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse).

Behind the scenes, these men forge secret alliances to fill the power vacuum and worm their way into the affections of Stalin’s distraught son Vasily (Rupert Friend) and daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough).

The film is genuinely funny and casually chilling. The cast is a wild mixture of people who have no place being in a film together, and the film plays on the absurdity of this collection by having them play their roles in a variety of accents.

The movie cements Iannucci’s position as the foremost satirist of his age, though I wonder perhaps what we have gained from his work.

His portrait of our insular politic classes as shallow, lazy and completely removed from reality only seems to have given them license to be shallower, lazier and even more removed from reality.

Similarly, history tells us showing up tyrants as buffoons doesn’t put the slightest dent in their appeal. Indeed, clown face is how all fascism now presents itself, coming at us with clown hair, clown bluster and clown childrens’ names.

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