"I've had nightmares that make more sense than this."
If there was ever a time when the world seemed like it was in desperate need of another biting satire from the brilliant mind of Armando Iannucci, it is probably now. He’s proved very capable of handling contemporary politics in TV with ‘The Thick of It’ and ‘Veep’ while also finding time to show he has real cinematic talent by bringing the superb ‘In the Loop’. But now he has entirely new setting in the form of 1950s Russia, and if I trusted anyone to turn a story about history’s most notorious mass murderer into a hilarious comedy then it’s Iannucci.
Following the unexpected death of the leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, a vicious and farcical power struggle breaks out between his closest advisors. These men who once lived in fear for their lives under the regime of Stalin now find themselves more likely to be offed by one of their allies as they become locked in a mission to ascend to power and take control of a major world power.
Iannucci has been known for his dark and politically motivated comedies, but ‘The Death of Stalin’ takes that to another level entirely. The dark moments are about as bleak as they come, and the comedy is about as funny as you’ll find in a cinema. It really is an astonishing feat of political satire that Iannucci has been able to bring forth this biting piece of socially relevant filmmaking that functions just as masterfully as a study of characters as it does of the entire regime they operate under. I cannot overstate what a brilliant tonal balance it is. Its thing to make jokes about cabinet meetings and congressional hearings, it’s another astral plane entirely to turn death camps, mass famine and civilian causalities into punchlines without ever coming across as tone deaf of degrading.
Make no mistake, Iannucci clearly has nothing but distaste for the world he presents in ‘The Death of Stalin’ as well as the characters that inhabit it. But he does seem utterly fascinated with them, and for the best part of 2 hours so are we as an audience. He has a fundamental understanding of the inherent ridiculousness behind politics and renders it in a way which anyone can understand. You don’t have to know anything about Russian history to understand the stakes in this film as they are made abundantly clear from the start. Though the dialogue heavy screenplay can be a bit weighty at times in terms of exposition, Iannucci places enough comedy throughout the movie to keep the viewer intrigued.
In fact sometimes confusion is an essential part of the plot itself. To see these characters immediately scrambling in a desperate effort to obtain power is hilarious in of itself, but to then then seem them abandon every one of their principles and ideologies on a whim depending upon when it suits them is even more hypocritically humorous. They become locked on psychological games that range from the deeply political to the incredibly petty. They jostle to earn favour with Stalin’s children, argue about who gets to stand where at his funeral and Iannucci even manages to render the simple act of people raising their hands to vote as comedic brilliance.
But of course, the movie never lets the audience forget the darker implications behind each action. From the very first scene we understand exactly what the stakes are for these characters and what it means to live under the Stalin regime. It contrasts the absurdity of each situation with the grim undertones that motivates each one, which adds a bizarrely relatable element to proceedings. Obviously these are despicable people but you can’t help but empathise with their plight. They’ve all been trapped in a labyrinth of their own making and as the walls begin to crumble all they can do is ensure their own safety.
That is in turn what allows all of the performances in the film to be pitch perfect. The characters are written to be exaggerated and over the top, but also painfully human in terms of their flaws and motivations. Each performer has a brilliant habit of subverting the expectations that come attached to their character. They are each introduced in one light but as the film progresses we are allowed to see them in their true light. Steve Buscemi’s seemingly bumbling portrayal of Nikita Khrushchev slowly reveals itself to be a malicious and vindictive plotter. Rupert Friend on the other hand has almost the opposite arc as Stalin’s son, being introduced as a temperamental danger but eventually transitioning to a pitiful and redundant relic. The same can be said for every performance which never struggles to convey each transitioning mood of their characters.
Treading a miraculous line between horrifyingly bleak and hilariously satirical, ‘The Death of Stalin’ is a brilliantly penned piece of cinematic comedy.