Even in a master like Ianucci’s hands, this feels like a project that shouldn’t have worked: making a farce out of the days surrounding the passing of one of the most terrifying and powerful dictators of the twentieth century but then, in many ways a lot of what goes on behind-the-scenes in politics sounds farcical, so maybe it isn’t that ridiculous. Either way, The Death of Stalin was always going to be walking a delicate tightrope, trying to be funny without being flippant, trying to be serious without getting po-faced. I’m delighted to report, it manages it spectacularly.
There is a delightful theatricality to the whole affair, the sets while spectacular feel purposely static and staged, as if part of a created reality by the state, the direction and overall production are functional and unshowy, really keeping the performative action as the focus, actors use their natural accents in lieu of attempting to force Russian ones (which has the added benefit of making the bouts of improvisation feel more natural), at times it feels like characters are only seconds from delivering a soliloquy direct to camera. The cast are uniformly excellent but then that’s to be expected from such heavyweight names as Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin and Andrea Riseborough though it does seem like the film was just a competition between Jason Isaac’s plummy, Yorkshire Georgy Zhukov and Rupert Friend’s wild, Upper Class Vasily Stalin to see who can effortlessly steal more scenes. After multiple watches, I still can’t decide.
Some could take issue with the film’s representation (or indeed lack thereof) of its female characters: Sylvestra La Touzel gets a wonderful cameo as the wife of Kruschev and Andrea Riseborough while not getting much in the way of comedic moments does get a fair bit of the dramatic impetus and runs with it but Olga Kurylenko as the sole prominent Eastern European voice almost seems out of place with the otherwise British/American cast and her character’s plotline never seems to cohere into a satisfying whole. Yet even with this, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that it really lets down the film as it’s just a satisfyingly hilarious overall package with some impressively bleak undertones.
There is something to be said for reducing the abuse of power down to pure comedy and ultimately, that is what’s happening here, there is nothing to be said about the terror inflicted on Russia by the Stalinist regime and so the only thing left to do is to laugh at it. That is made so much easier to do by a cast working at the top of their game off a script that is working just as hard as them. It is worth noting while an entertaining representation of the time, there is a lot that is historically amended for dramatic effect but as long as you go in knowing that you’re not watching an accurate document of the times but a tribute to the spirit of it, you’ll be fine. This is not just the best comedy of last year, but probably the best work of cinematic satire since, well, since In The Loop. You know what, there just might be something to this Iannucci fella…
Dir: Armando Iannucci
Prd: Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, Kevin Loader, Yann Zenou
Scr: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, Paul Whitehouse, Rupert Friend, Olga Kurylenko Paddy Considine
DOP: Zac Nicholson
Music: Christopher Willis
The Death of Stalin is available on Digital now and DVD and Blu-ray Monday 26th February