Film Review: The Death of Stalin

“Veep” creator Armando Iannucci makes dark, delicious comedy out of the chaos and calculation surrounding the demise of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin.
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Not since Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be has there been a movie satire as audacious as Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin. You’ll recall that Lubitsch’s bold 1942 masterpiece found hilarity amidst the travails of a Polish acting troupe during the Nazi occupation of their country. The Death of Stalin, set in the 1953 Soviet Union, isn’t topically nervy like that, but it has the same brazen mix of comedy and terror—the comedy coming out of the absurdity of the totalitarian mindset.

Iannucci first gained notice as the creator of the British comedy series “The Thick of It,” about political spin doctors, which spun off to the witty feature film In The Loop. Then he created “Veep,” the acclaimed, Emmy-winning HBO comedy series about Washington politics. For his second feature, he’s imagined the savage political infighting that ensued with the demise of longtime dictator Joseph Stalin—and savage is truly the apt description. Iannucci doesn’t soft-pedal the extreme, arbitrary cruelty of the era, which may lead some to wonder what scenes of sudden execution are doing in an ostensible comedy. It’s a valid argument, but those moments accentuate the insanity of the climate in which its vain central characters plot to undermine one another.

The tone is set in the opening scene, inspired by real events: a radio broadcast of a classical-music concert. The radio producer (Paddy Considine) receives a phone call from Stalin himself demanding delivery of a recording of the concert: Trouble is, the concert wasn’t recorded, and the producer must hastily reassemble the orchestra and the audience for an encore performance, and replace the conductor who has just been knocked unconscious from a silly accident. When Stalin issues an order, everyone quakes.

That also applies to the high officials surrounding him, who are often subjected to mandatory late-night viewings of American westerns. When Stalin suffers a debilitating stroke, he’s found the next morning lying in a puddle of his urine because no one had the nerve to enter his office. The dictator eventually dies, partly because all the reputable physicians in Moscow have been either imprisoned or executed. Then the jockeying for power begins, most notably by Beria, the calculating and acid-tongued head of the security forces, played with wicked wit by the great British stage actor Simon Russell Beale.

Iannucci has playfully assembled an ensemble of British and American actors speaking in their native accents; the casting of Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev may seem incongruous at first, but his comically calibrated exasperation and fury pay big dividends. The irresistible cast also includes Jeffrey Tambor as befuddled, self-absorbed deputy general secretary Malenkov; “Monty Python” alum Michael Palin as dithering foreign secretary Molotov; a hilarious Jason Isaacs as uber-macho Field Marshal Zhukov; a manic Rupert Friend as Stalin’s paranoid, idiot son Vasily and Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s assertive but naïve daughter Svetlana.

Adapted from the graphic novels by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, the screenplay by Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin is filled with droll one-liners, vicious asides and zany pieces of business befitting a political environment gone mad. Iannucci’s trademark creative profanity never seemed more appropriate. Laced with fear and dread throughout, this comedy of scheming vipers goes extremely dark toward the end. And ultimately, its bleak but bracing portrait of naked self-interest masquerading as governance seems oddly timely, despite the historical context.

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