The Death Of Stalin

UK (2017) Dir. Armando Iannucci

Satire is a hard thing to get right and make accessible for people who may not realise they are watching a cynical lampooning of a serious subject. Armando Iannucci has been doing it long enough now, with a slew of classic titles to his credit – including I’m Alan Partridge, The Day Today and The Thick Of It – that he can arguably be declared one of Britain’s finest satirists.

For his latest work Iannucci has chosen a dark period of Soviet political history to cast his acerbic, trenchant, askew eye over, using a French graphic novel La mort de Staline by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin as his source. Historical accuracy might not be high on the agenda but Iannucci’s trademark absurdist humour makes this a brave, fascinating, and often hilarious watch.

In 1952 when Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) was in power of the Soviet Union, a live musical recital of Mozart is being broadcast by state radio which he demands a recording of. Since one wasn’t made the station scramble to get one done by forcing a second performance from the orchestra and star pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko).

A staunch anti-Stalinist, Yudina sneaks what she claims is a note of admiration for Stalin into the record sleeve upon its collection by his soldiers. When Stalin later plays the record, he reads the note laughing at Yudina’s hatred for him and wishes for his death. But this hearty laughter triggers an attack and Stalin is left paralysed from a cerebral haemorrhage, forcing his divided cabinet to work together in keeping things running.

Because of the internal bickering and political one-upmanship, one could liken The Death Of Stalin to The Thick Of It in Russia, especially as the main characters are essentially individual spin-offs of The Thick Of It’s legendary foul-mouthed brute Malcolm Tucker. And that is another thing that makes this satire immediately amusing – the English-speaking cast retain their natural accents despite playing Russians, so the US actors sound American and the Brits British.

Making up the Central Committee are rotund head of the NKVD Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), nervy Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), hot headed Moscow Party Head Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and veteran Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), who was on Stalin’s last hit list but given a reprieve by Beria.

As a devoted supporter of Stalin, Beria is the hungriest to take over the role of leader and begins his campaign by reversing many of the pernicious rules he gleefully acted on to make himself popular with the people. Malenkov is acting leader but clearly doesn’t have the same fortitude to be a strong and decisive ruler, while Khrushchev wants to reverse Stalin’s laws out of fairness and not for popularity sake.

Unlike other comedies, this film is all plot so to continue further with this discussion is to recap the entire story. And unlike other comedies, the humour is often subtle despite the ludicrous premise and occasionally comical figures, so the jokes are not always set up or sign posted in the traditional way. This will divide the audience between the savvy and the clueless; I don’t mean that in a derogatory way as satire as rich as this can be an acquired taste.

Those of us already familiar with Iannucci’s work will know where to look and where his targets are and it is undeniably ballsy to target the subject of the death of a world leader with the reputation of Stalin. In Russia, he was considered a popular hero which explains why this film was banned over there but history has shown Stalin was also responsible for millions of deaths under his rule and Iannucci’s motives for making this film were to readdress that balance of reverence with a cheeky dose of reality.

What makes it gloriously amusing is that the duplicitous members of the Committee all trying to undermine each other come across like a feckless bunch of East End gangsters akin to Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels. Beria typifies this along with the Malcolm Tucker comparisons, making profane violent threats to get his way whilst Khrushchev matches him for his coarse outbursts but is always one step behind Beria.

One scene in which both are desperate to ingratiate themselves with Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) is as funny as it is lamentable, reducing both to the roles of petty children fighting over a football. However, the humour takes a back seat to the gravity of the political machinations dictates a tonal shift into darker territory, involving violence, accusation of sex abuse and paedophilia, and torture.

The most understated character is Molotov, a man whose piety to the Party is the most tragic in that he wilfully allowed his own wife be executed by Stalin for treason. This isn’t completely accurate as the real Polina Molotova was only incarcerated and Molotov didn’t condone this at all, but Iannucci’s distortion of these facts serves as an indictment of the damage blind faith can cause.

Michael Palin plays Molotov with a quiet pathos, painting him as a harmless, bumbling old fool painted into a corner by his unwavering fidelity to the Party. Of the principal cast, he is the closest thing to a “good guy”. The other relish in the freedom of being allowed to go over the top in their roles, the shackles of having to adopt an accent or appearance replaced by the ability to perform with sheer comic energy.

Because the final act is heavy with dark sobering drama it’s hard not to walk away from The Death Of Stalin feeling distanced from the same cheeky giddiness the very funny first half leaves us feeling. Maybe Iannucci’s strength lies in the self-contained 30-minute TV/radio show format and not a 106-minute film, but his trademark irreverence and political savagery thankfully remains razor sharp.