As politics becomes overtaken by populism, and totalitarianism once more rears its ugly head, people are looking to comedy as a source of relief – particularly that which appears on late-night television. But with politicians now being unintentionally funnier that the people who lampoon them, satirists are having to look elsewhere to outwit them.
Armando Iannucci is a man who knows this problem all too well. The award-winning writer is best known for creating Veep and The Thick of It, two sitcoms with hapless characters which were eventually cancelled for being out-ridiculed by reality. For his latest project, Iannucci has looked to the past for inspiration, peering through the Iron Curtain to craft The Death of Stalin, a dark political comedy that follows the sudden passing of a fabled, and feared, leader of the Soviet Union.
Over a period of three decades, Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) ruled his people with an Iron Fist, and he wasn’t the only one – as per Soviet doctrine, the Union was governed by a Central Committee which had to agree on a decision before it could be made lawful. Members of the committee included Stalin’s key advisor, Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi); the head of the Union’s secret police force, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale); and the deputy leader of the Communist Party, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor).
After their leader suffers a stroke in 1953, these three figures emerge as the ones most likely to succeed Stalin as Premier of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, with the conniving beginning immediately after. All three men use every means at their disposal to usurp the leadership, be it dossiers on their comrades, the power of the armed forces, or members of Stalin’s family, even going as far as to forgo the policies and ideals of their dearly departed leader.
Some interesting casting choices permeate The Death of Stalin, a film that consists of British actors and the occasional American, ranging from Hollywood A-listers to those familiar faces whose names cannot be remembered. Not that this is a problem – each character has been well-cast, and every actor portrays them brilliantly. More pleasing is that they do so without speaking in a put-on Russian accent, pointedly using their natural tone of voice to deliver dialogue.
The one exception to this fact is Jason “Lucius” Isaacs, who speaks with a thick Yorkshire accent to play the colourful leader of the Soviet Army, Georgy Zhukov, easily the most memorable character in The Death of Stalin; coming a close second is the doting Vyacheslav Molotov, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who is portrayed by Monty Python alum Michael Palin. In fact, much has been done to differentiate between the many protagonists, with each having a distinguishable feature or trait within their personality.
For those who aren’t familiar with the history or politics of Russia, The Death of Stalin will make for an engaging political thriller. The backroom scheming and machinations are almost Shakespearean in tone, with every twist and turn leaving one intrigued as to who will ultimately be victorious in the battle for the premiership. Making proceedings more entertaining is the rather rousing score from Christopher Willis which plays every so often.
It’s as a comedy where The Death of Stalin falls short – while it has plenty of humorous moments, they don’t quite possess the punch or bite of Iannucci’s other works, or even the blockbuster comedies that have been released in recent months. The film is at its funniest when lampooning Soviet culture, yet even then, Iannucci’s observations seem dull and uninspiring. It seems the only aim of the comedy is to demonstrate how atrocious life was in Russia, a fact which won’t surprise anyone.
While not the smartest effort form Armando Iannucci, The Death of Stalin remains a rather fun caper, with the many historical figures memorably portrayed by an excellent cast, and each provided with an individuality by the actors who play them. And for those who don’t know the eventual outcome, the story will make for very engrossing viewing indeed.