By Jim Mackney
A satire following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, adapted by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin from the French graphic novel series by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. It doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs and it isn’t. In truth the film like the finest satirical films, has a jet-black heart that stinks to high heaven like a corpse that has been left out in the sun. None of the characters have redeemable features and the twist and turns of the narrative allow their full awfulness to be exposed, much to the delight of the audience.
The plot is woven cleverly, as those closest to Stalin grapple with their great leader’s demise, fading in and out of denial. Initially terrified of breaking the news that Stalin is dead and the ensuing fall out the news would bring (not least if he turns out to be alive and sends them straight to the gulag when he wakes up), the Soviet members plead ignorance to rumours that Stalin has passed and lead a chorus of “he is very unwell”. However, faced with the unthinkable the group of Soviet dignitaries perform a political game of hot potato with added fork pricking that often stretches the gags far too thin (the best ones are in the trailer). When it is finally confirmed that Stalin is dead, Iannucci cleverly injects the characters with a maniacal glee, drunk on newly found power, as an air childishness comes over the group of crawlers and brownnosers.
Playing the crawlers and brownnosers is a superb cast, all of whom acts with icy force and menace that leaves you thinking knives really were being sharpened on set, poised to be slammed into backs at a moments notice.
Michael Palin is excellent as “Molotov”, the pathetic functionary who has long since sacrificed all on the altar of Stalinism, and gives the film an excellent sense of Python-esque lunacy. Andrea Riseborough is compelling as Stalin’s daughter, “Svetlana”, driven to an almost constant state of paranoia and dread. Steve Buscemi masterfully plays a nervy “Khrushchev”, who morphs from an uneasy yes man into a puppeteer that would make Vito Corleone proud. Jason Isaacs steals every scene he is in and gets the biggest laughs as war hero “Zhukov”, whom he plays with a broad Yorkshire accent, which in truth only adds to the hilarity.
Above all else however is Simon Russell Beale, the slimy, odious secret police chief “Beria”, a figure of utter, unending evil. It is clear Beale relished the role; his extraordinary talent shining through and his years of treading the boards to critical acclaim are finally brought to the screen. The murky world of the Soviet Union is not uncommon to Beale who in 2011 played the role of Stalin himself, in the National Theatre’s production of “Collaborators” and he is the film’s heart, a bulging succubus of a man, who uses political ideology and dastardly tactics to raise and lower his profile in the eyes of the public. His idea of “pausing” the programme of beatings, imprisoning, and torture for those on the Soviet union’s “lists” just so that he can be credited for restoring authority is one particularly brazen act of power.
There are many great scenes in “The Death of Stalin”, one in particular going to Paddy Considine, a radio producer who must deliver a recording of a concerto to Stalin’s offices at once, however, no one has recorded it. Considine’s continual upping of the ante in panic is a brilliant example of the absurd and whip smart dialogue penned by Iannucci, Schneider and Martin.
Iannucci and co have used power, incompetence and bad faith to create a subversive satire that is able to stand tall. Like the political settings of Veep and The Thick of It that we are used to seeing from Iannucci, these Soviet rivals are marooned by an event that they are now only playing lip service to and are incapable of realising that none of them have any real power. It is a series of events designed by a committee and a series of events that is doomed to fail as the films races to its horrific conclusion with the true crux of the film being revealed.
“The Death of Stalin” is not as good as “In The Loop”. It doesn’t contain the exemplary, slightly silly nature of “Veep” or the hopelessness of “The Thick of It”, but it does contain an important point underneath all of the quick fire jokes and broad Yorkshire accents, and that is that sadly, the repercussions of Stalin’s death are still being felt in modern Russia and modern geo-politics and it is in part to these hate filled, careerist politicians that we owe the pleasure. It is not hard to see why The Death of Stalin leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
In cinemas from Friday 13th October