There’s something deeply disturbing about the fact it’s so easy to laugh at “The Death Of Stalin”. Were it not for the fact these events all actually took place, this absurdist comedy from Armando Iannucci could be dismissed for simply being too far-fetched for its own good.
When Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) suffers a devastating stroke and dies, the members of his inner circle, the Presidium, begin jockeying for power. Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), head of the NKVD, looks likeliest to cement his grip on power but Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) is busy preparing a coup of his own.
As you’d expect from Iannucci, aided in writing duties by David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows, he wrings every last drop of satire and black humour from Fabien Nury & Thierry Robin’s original graphic novel. The initially surprising decision to dispense with the need for cod-realistic accents turns out to be a masterstroke, giving the proceedings an earthily surreal, Pythonesque quality, and allowing the all-star cast to revel in the sharp and incisive script. While Beale, Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov steal the lion’s share of the laughs, it’s in Jason Isaacs that the film finds its star performer, his boorishly jovial take on Georgy Zhukov, the head of the Soviet Army, delivering many of the film’s lightest and darkest moments.
The cast is brimming with comic talent and it must have been as much of a pleasure to makes as it was to watch. There’s one scene, at a post-mortem meeting of the Presidium where Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) leads his comrades on a Möbiusian argument of what the right thing to do might be that’s a masterclass of comic timing, not only from Palin but the rest of the cast too, that is those that weren’t just sitting there, basking in Palin’s performance.
Make no mistake, though, this is a brutal and savage political drama, detailing the true dark hypocrisy and corruption at nearly every level of the Kremlin at the height of the Cold War. Much like the original “Ghostbusters”, the comedy comes from the performances and delivery of the dialogue, rather than the script itself; just a little tonal shift that turns this egregious tragedy to political farce. The authorities in modern-day Russia are looking closely at the film, considering banning it lest it ‘destabilise Russia by causing rifts in society’. The authorities in America could do worse than look closely at this film too, for an instructive lesson on where they may themselves be heading.