If anyone can turn the reign of an oppressive dictator into an uproarious farce, it’s Scottish writer/director Armando Iannucci (Veep, In the Loop). His latest project, a cynical political spoof, makes great strides in further cementing the filmmaker as one of the most biting satirists of our time. Based on the controversial French graphic novel of the same name, The Death of Stalin handles a period of unparalleled brutality with crisp, dry humor, performing a skilled tightrope walk that manages to give credence to each of its conflicting tones.
Following Joseph Stalin’s (Adrian Mcloughlin) unexpected, fatal brain hemorrhage, his bumbling council snaps into action, each angling to be his successor. Absolute control corrupts absolutely, and it isn’t long before the power-hungry jackals are going to great lengths to screw one another out of the job. As bureaucracy is pushed to its dysfunctional limits, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) square off to see who will seize control of the Soviet Union.
While the film is undoubtedly steeped in comedy, it is far darker than its slapstick marketing campaign would have you believe. Iannucci makes a point of underlining the absurdity of the period, as there is an inescapable panic surrounding characters living in constant fear of falling victim to the totalitarian whims of an erratic tyrant. Matching the tonal balancing act of a Terry Gilliam film, overt humor is threaded into existential fear. In doing so, Iannucci earns the laughter without ever backing away from the unspeakable horrors of Stalin’s regime, as well as the unmatched chaos that followed his demise.
The Death of Stalin benefits from a blend of varied accents, boasting actors from all over the globe (although with virtually no native Russians in the mix), all of whom are maintaining their natural speaking voice. Snarky lines of dialogue (“I can’t remember who’s alive and who isn’t”) are given an extra layer of levity when they glide instinctively across the unaltered tongues of Steve Buscemi and Michael Palin. All it takes is a series of fleeting, introductory title cards to convince us which Russian delegate each performer is meant to be portraying.
For the most part, the script is tight, boiling months’ worth of corruption down into roughly one week-long comedy of manners. Through clever narrative somersaults, we are shown the dramatic contrast between the elite ideal and the harsh reality for the Soviet people. As conspiracy and incompetence mesh together indistinguishably, even those in charge get lost in the shuffle, leading to a ripping swirl of chaos that takes on a comedic tone only through the barrier of hindsight. Although, the looming fear of authoritarian rule will still strike a painfully realistic nerve with many viewers around the world.
While its shtick runs out a bit sooner than its runtime does, The Death of Stalin milks the sick irony of its setting for all it’s worth. Armando Iannucci will make you laugh as well as squirm, often simultaneously in the same exchange. Political unrest is constantly reinventing itself, and Iannucci knowingly connects the idiocy of the past with the gloom of the present, without sacrificing any of the bleak humor. And that’s no small feat.