The first thing you notice about The Death of Stalin is that nobody has a Russian accent. The impressive cast, which includes Michael Palin, John Isaacs, and Steve Buscemi, all speak with their various British and American accents. See, this isn’t a drab, onerous period a piece, a one hundred percent historically accurate depiction of the political aftermath of Joseph Stalin’s death. No, this is an Armando Iannucci film: a pitch black satire of political bumbling and a great deal of swearing.
Iannucci is best known for his BBC sitcom The Thick of It and its cinematic spin-off In the Loop – political farces that stumble through the halls of power – and there’s a little of those in The Death of Stalin‘s DNA. This is much darker territory, though. The worst that could happen to Iannucci’s present day cabinet ministers is resignation; here, the Central Committee members, should they put a foot wrong, face the threat of torture and execution.
When Stalin (played by a grouchy Adrian McLoughlin) is found dead in his quarters, the Central Committee of the Communist Party – Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse), and Spartak Sokolov (Justin Edwards) – scramble to deal with the unspeakable. Literally unspeakable. At first, nobody wants to utter the word “dead” (“He’s feeling unwell.”), for fear of being branded a semantic traitor.
Once Stalin’s death has been confirmed (pronounced by the only doctors left in Moscow – the rest are in the Gulag), the Soviet elite immediately descend into inept, childish, sweary plotting. Tambor’s Malenkov, vain and neurotic, is elected as Stalin’s successor; but the devious Beria and the garrulous Khrushchev have their own ambitions.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Tambor and Buscemi bring all of their respective idiosyncrasies to bear on their respective roles. Palin returns to the unflappable pedantry which he excelled at in his Monty Python days. John Isaacs storms into the film’s late stages as the alpha male General Zhukov, channelling a little of Rik Mayall’s Lord Flashheart. Amid all of this is Beale’s Beria, head of the secret police and perhaps the only competent one of the lot. Of course, in an Iannucci satire, competence means diddly-squat.
There is no mistaking that this is indeed an Iannucci satire. The dialogue is machine gun quick, dripping with wit (both intelligent and puerile), and fit to burst with absurd insults (“clattering fannies”). But the comedy here is broader than the often underplayed The Thick of It. There is a greater reliance on physical comedy, with a delightfully awkward scene which involves moving Stalin’s body from the floor to a bed getting the film’s biggest laugh. This is not to say that The Death of Stalin is a light-hearted romp. This is black comedy, black to its core, with torture and executions more than once acting as grisly punchlines.
The Death of Stalin is riotously funny, and as dark as the cells in a Gulag. At a time when genuine buffoons have fumbled their way to the highest positions of power, the sight of these giants of history bumbling through their darkest hour is chilling, but also strangely uplifting. Iannucci’s intent seems to be the revelation that the world’s great powers, despite constantly protesting their difference, aren’t all that different after all. If we could survive the Soviet Union, we can survive our own trying times.