Earning fame as the writer of such close-to-the-bone, side-splitting comedies as The Thick Of It, In The Loop and Veep, Armando Iannucci is a well-recognized giant of comedy. It’s a little surprising, therefore, to see him release a film titled The Death Of Stalin – a topic that does not immediately present itself as a comic goldmine. However, I can honestly say that I have never laughed so much in my life.
That’s not to say that the film shies away from the realities of life under Stalin’s brutal regime. The film opens with the performance of a concerto, during which the director of the Moscow radio (a lovely cameo from Paddy Considine) receives a call from Stalin himself, requesting a recording of the performance. On realizing that the performance was not recorded, the director drags the orchestra back to their instruments, fills out the thinning audience with people from the street, and insists that the performance be repeated for recording. Not only does the scene feature some signature Iannucci swearing, but puts the absurdity of the situation into a careful balance with the very real fear that, should Stalin not receive his recording, everyone involved will be either shot or sent to a labour camp – most likely alongside their families – from the very beginning of the film.
Even the funniest scenes – and there’s no shortage of them – are sharply contrasted with images of people being dragged from their beds and bundled into lorries in the middle of the night, or being shot without warning or provocation. If, however, at this point you’re fearing a Sean Of The Dead style bloodbath-comedy, then fear no more. There is very, very little on-screen violence, with most beating, torturing, raping and murdering taking place off-screen, and the majority of the on-screen deaths handled with a Marvel-esque attitude of “we heard the gunshot and they fell down so there’s no need for us to linger over the blood and brains”. The real success of this method is that it maintains a constant subconscious fear of suddenly being confronted by the true horror of the Stalinist regime, keeping the audience in a vague imitation of the shadow of fear that permeated daily life.
The Death Of Stalin has a cast of standouts, featuring Simon Russell Beale (Lavrentiy Beria), Steve Buscemi (Nikita Khrushchev), Jeffrey Tambor (Georgy Malenkov), Michael Palin (Vyacheslav Molotov), Jason Isaacs (Georgy Zhukov) and Rupert Friend (Vasily Stalin), and cameo appearances from Paul Whitehouse and Justin Edwards, all of whom play to their absolute comic peak. Palin delivers one of the highlights of the whole film in a long, winding and, yes, Pythonesque speech in which he appears to change his argument every few seconds, while Russell Beale walks a beautiful line between scheming-politician head of the NKVD and comic showstopper. Buscemi’s incredible skill makes this stunningly gradated performance a joy to watch, moving Khrushchev from bumbling clown to the man running Russia in a transition so seamless that you don’t notice until it’s too late – which I suppose is kind of the point.
For a film about Stalin’s death, there’s a surprising amount of Stalin in the film. Iannucci gives his audience a chance to familiarize themselves the internal workings and tensions of the Politburo – the committee of the communist party – and with the names and positions of the major players before introducing a conflict, each of whom get an individual freeze-frame introduction. I’m not going to say more on these, because that would be spoiling it – but no matter how good you think the first few are, Jason Isaacs’ is the best.
Iannucci is as sharp in real life as he appears on panel shows, and proves himself to be time and time again through his writing. Over the course of the question-and-answer session, he cracks jokes about the still-breaking Harvey Weinstein case while describing the process of shooting in precise detail. He appears to be a man diligent in his work, interested in his fanbase and endlessly excited by his own work, and he also seemed determined to stay until he’d seen everyone wince, cutting his jokes closer and closer to the bone. After 45 minutes of questions, which spanned highly technical filming logistics to his youth misspent “bunking off” school to attend a similar event in the same building starring Felicity Kendal, and revealing that his next project will be an adaptation of David Copperfield, he made a joke about having to run for a train and left the cinema to resounding applause.
All-in-all, The Death Of Stalin is one of the funniest, darkest films I have seen in a very long while. The production values are through the roof, the cast are wonderful, and the film remains funny without mocking the ruthlessness of Stalin’s regime. I don’t think I’ve ever said this before – and I doubt I’ll say this again – but if there’s one film you see this year, make sure it’s this.