By Jack Mansfield
If you’ve ever seen any of Armando Iannucci’s work before, you already have some idea of what to expect from his latest comedy, The Death of Stalin (2017). His writing credits (especially his characters) are already glittering: from the cringe-worthy Alan Partridge to the swear-happy Malcolm Tucker, Iannucci has proved time and time again that he knows how to paint a vividly satirical picture of current events. With Stalin, however, he takes real-life characters and portrays some of history’s most evil men in the most laugh-out-loud ways.
After the titular death of Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), the mad scramble for power between his devout supporters begins. Each member of Stalin’s cabinet stakes a claim to the top spot, with Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) being the main three players. Those three names are only a drop in the pool of a stellar supporting cast, including Rupert Friend, Paul Whitehouse, Jason Isaacs and Michael Palin (to name but a few!) and each cast member gives an outrageously funny performance as one of history’s most frighteningly powerful Soviets. In such a strong cast it can be hard to stand out, but Steve Buscemi and Simon Russell Beale are just that: suitably outstanding. Beale is terrifying as the sinister Beria, and there’s an odd air of sympathy to be felt around Buscemi’s Khrushchev.
I had seen some of Iannucci’s work before going into Stalin but his patented brand of dry wit and political satire will never not feel fresh when we have a political climate such as it is in real life. It’s trademark Iannucci: characters fight with each other to get a word in, they burst into the odd profane tirade, awkward moments are far from in short supply. His mastery of comedy is not in the grand or the physical, but instead in the detail, and the easily missable moments. One such scene towards the beginning of the film where the NKVD get their lists of people to round up and kill leads Beria to order a soldier to “shoot her before him but make sure he sees it”, and it’s the unnervingly routine delivery from Beale that charges this simple line with such humour. Moments like this are what make the film So excellently written is Stalin that Iannucci can make you cry with laughter, cringe in discomfort and even care for Soviet tyrants.
History buff or not, The Death of Stalin is an absolutely essential comedy to add to your watch list. Do it now, comrade. Or else.