Director: Armando Iannucci
Screenplay: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Jeffrey Tambor
Runtime: 107 Minutes
The Death of Stalin could only work when executed with a very European outlook to the tremulous events surrounding the death of Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin. As in the only kind of comedy to be found in such a horrifying period of the 20th century would have to be that of dry observation or an absurd condemnation of the entire conflict as the ludicrous hypocritical farce that that really revealed itself to be.
Thankfully, British satirist Armando Iannucci’s second feature holds itself together with a balancing act that pokes gleeful fun at the entire event but doesn’t shy away from the hideous darkness’s of the Soviet regime. The story depicts the mad dash for power that ensued immediately following the dictator's death, with control of the comity and the country up for grabs.
Much like his past work on BBC’s The Thick of It – and to a greater extent, its cinematic sibling In The Loop – the state of panic that runs through the film is a constant reinforcement of the eternal ticking clock that ticks against the internal mechanisms of political party engines. Backstabbing, back talking, secret meetings in public areas and isolated office wings that can last only a few sentences before being interrupted by another party altogether, these are the components that Iannucci and co. have perfected to a level of insidious artistry and the scenes fit together into the narrative brilliantly.
The secret to the collaborative screenplay by the likes of Iannucci and David Schneider is keeping the drama inside at all times, very rarely taking a look at the outside world and the consequences of their petty internal squabbling. When the movie does the picture it paints of the state of the country is as dark and dour as you’d imagine. Though we might laugh at the nonchalant way that they speak about death lists, this is having a very real effect on the population and is devastating the lives of those faceless individuals involved. Every time there is a major shift in the power struggle there is bloodshed, culminating in a death sentence in the film’s final moments that if it were played any straighter would be one of the most difficult scenes to watch all year.
The cast is a brilliantly eclectic roster of comedic talents of British and transatlantic heritage, granting the film an air of alienating otherworldliness as characters shout about kissing their “Russian ass” in thick American accents. Depicting broad caricatures of their real-life counterparts, Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin and Simon Russell Beale are brilliantly accustomed to their positions as the lead comity members with none of them really coming across as overly sympathetic presences given their terrifying actions and approaches.
Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend take naturally to the roles of Stalin’s children now left to pick up the pieces while waiting on the sidelines like the pawns they have now become, but Jason Isaacs nearly steals the film as Georgy Zhukov, with a thick Yorkshire accent and brash command that bellows and draws the audience’s attention in every scene he’s in.
It flaunts historical licence as much as it throws its foul mouth around, but it’s a highly intelligent and brilliantly presented piece of comedy-drama that occasionally borders on horror in its more sinister moments. It’s a laugh out loud work of absolute genius, one of the funniest films of 2017 and the culmination of Armando Iannucci’s considerable talents as a writer and director.