Anyone who is a fan of his TV shows The Thick of It (UK) and Veep (US), as well as his film In The Loop, knows the brilliance of Armando Iannucci’s scathing political humor. His characters are all either clueless buffoons or childish narcissists, and seeing them interact in the halls of power is hilarious, nightmarish and, especially lately, a little too much on the mark for comfort. With his new feature film, The Death of Stalin, Iannucci turns his unsparing eye on real-life persons for the first time, chronicling in his inimitable way the jockeying for power and control that happened in the Soviet Union in the wake of the death of the monstrous Premier, Joseph Stalin.
But whereas the shenanigans of Veep and In The Loop remained funny in the context of everyday policymaking and grandstanding in the American and British governments, there’s something tonally off about seeing the same kind of jokiness applied to a horrifying dictatorship that was imprisoning and murdering almost anyone it suspected of dissension left and right. While still often amusing, The Death of Stalin — based on two graphic novels by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin — suffers to a degree from the effort involved in ping-ponging between the absurdity and malevolence of the situation at hand.
That situation is the sudden passing of Stalin from a stroke in March 1953, which sets off a struggle between his subordinates in the Central Committee over who will ascend to the role of Premier in the vacuum left by Stalin’s demise. Among those involved in what is both a delicate dance of internal diplomacy and a deadly game of political musical chairs are Minister of Agriculture Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), secret police (NKVD) head and deputy premier Lavrenty Beria (Simon Russell Beale), acting premier Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and minister of foreign affairs Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin). The scrum soon comes down to two factions, one headed by the pragmatic Khruschev and the other by the more ambitious and more sinister Beria.
No one in the film speaks with a Russian accent (except for actors who are from the region such as Olga Kurylenko, playing a pianist who wants Stalin dead), most of them either verbalizing in British or American accents that are both surreal in context and oddly distancing. It was perhaps the wisest choice, however, instead of having an ensemble cast all struggle to consistently speak like actual Russians; it also leads to some grimly funny elements such as Jason Isaacs, playing the head of the Soviet Army, sounding like he’s just been down the pub while he oversees a beating.
It’s that jarring juxtaposition, along with others, that makes The Death of Stalin often surprisingly unnerving at times. To see the members of the Politburo carry on like a bunch of frathouse brothers (“Well, we didn’t drop him. Well done, us,” says one as they manage to move the stricken Stalin from the floor to his bed) even as they give orders that will send innocent people to terrible deaths is bracing. So is hearing grand musical themes or delicate piano pieces played while the members of the Committee snipe at each other like four-year-olds fighting over a pile of toys.
The cast to a person is excellent: Buscemi brings his working-man appeal and uproarious bursts of temper to Khrushchev, making him strangely likable at first, while Beale is flat-out astounding as Beria, a scheming little man who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else and can be both sycophantic and brutal often within the same scene. Tambor’s Malenkov is a sharp portrayal of a hapless bureaucrat who wants desperately to project strength while completely incapable of doing so, and it’s a treat to see Monty Python alumnus Michael Palin on the screen again, disappearing into the slippery Molotov.
If The Death of Stalin is not quite as much fun to watch as Veep or as wickedly hilarious as In The Loop, it comes down to — as mentioned above — the fact that the core material here is much more grim than what Iannucci has worked with before. The film also feels long: the novelty of the whole venture begins to wear off before the movie is over. Some judicious trimming and tightening here and there might have given the movie itself more punch.
But its faults aside, The Death of Stalin does have something to say about the moral and intellectual abscess that seems to accompany those who come almost unwittingly into great power, and that is perhaps why it doesn’t seem that funny at all sometimes: because we’re living in an era where the antics in this movie might not be too far removed from what’s happening right here, right now, in the real corridors of power.
The Death of Stalin is out in theaters Friday (March 9).