Any concerns that Armando Iannucci's satire about the death of the most important figure in Soviet history would be revisionist or glorifying are quickly put to rest by an early scene in which comrade Stalin collapses in a puddle of his own piss on his office carpet, before his limp and urine-soaked body is clumsily manhandled into bed by his inner circle of self-serving cronies.
The Death of Stalin follows in the theme of the writer and director’s previous work – in particular The Thick of It and Veep – lifting the veil of austere pomp, romance and gravity that surrounds political and historic events to reveal all of the backstabbing, incompetence and scrambling farce beneath. There’s an excruciatingly precarious balance struck between grim reality and laughs, seen early on during the dissemination of one of Stalin’s frequently updated murder-lists, as the head of the secret police offhandedly instructs his officers to execute dissenters in a particular order, “kill her first, but make sure he sees it”.
Until he’s face down in damp shag, Adrian McLoughlin plays Stalin with the hair-trigger psychopathy of Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast. Even the most trusted members of the party are only a slip of the tongue away from being disappeared to a gulag, and it’s this shared sense of dread, mistrust and paranoia among the Central Committee that drives the darkly comic wrestling for status in the resulting power-vacuum.
The Death of Stalin is a precisely targeted mockery not of Russia or Russians, but of a scramble to come out on top of a tumultuous and unexpected upheaval
Simon Russell Beale is brilliant as scheming executioner-in-chief Beria, who has the clearest designs on taking things over. Jeffrey Tambor’s perpetually startled Malenkov is rapidly manoeuvred into the leadership position, and is a laughably spineless foil throughout. The directorial choice to forgo Russian accents is absolutely the correct one too, as it gives us Jason Isaacs playing the medal-encumbered Red Army field marshal Zhukov with the broad Yorkshire swagger of somebody who’d kick your face off at a bus stop in Huddersfield.
The duty of dispensing Iannucci’s trademark, meticulously constructed, Malcolm Tucker-esque put downs is largely shared between the bickering cast, though Steve Buscemi as the quietly calculating Kruschev can lay claim to the most entertaining digs. He’s superb in the role, and perfectly cast, exuding a faintly criminal aura fostered over decades of filmmaking that’s put to good use in this sleazy and fast-moving Machiavellian plot. It’s Buscemi’s best performance in a long time.
The Death of Stalin is a precisely targeted mockery not of Russia or Russians, but of a scramble to come out on top of a tumultuous and unexpected upheaval, a pisstake of a shambolic, leaderless government that could (and can) be found (very easily) anywhere (here) in history (now). The uneasy proximity of slapstick to actual horror makes for occasionally uncomfortable viewing – often deliberately snapping the audience back into check with the uncensored brutality of the regime – but this is defiantly hilarious comedy. Iannucci at his best.