Anybody familiar with the work of Armando Iannucchi will know what to expect with this latest offering from the Scottish writer/director whose penchant for political satire is perhaps unparalleled amongst contemporary piss-takers. Having created, written and/or produced the likes of Alan Partridge, The Thick of It and Veep for television, The Death of Stalin is the second big screen directorial effort for Iannucchi following 2009’s In the Loop, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. Rather than focussing on the death of the Marxist leader from a cerebral haemorrhage in 1953, the film explores the power games that ensue in the aftermath of Stalin’s passing as the various members of the ministry set about trying to undermine and one-up each other in their bid to assume control.
Iannucchi has gathered a stellar cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, Rupert Friend, Paddy Considine, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko and Jeffrey Tambor, whose inclusion in the ensemble as deputy leader Georgy Malenkov almost resulted in the film bypassing cinemas in the wake of sexual harassment allegations against him, however it is Jason Isaacs who steals the show as Field Marshall Zukov. Sure, there isn’t a Russian amongst them, but this is satire so such authenticity is hardly necessary. In fact, the complete absence of Russian accents only adds to the absurdity of it all and it certainly seems as though everybody involved was having a lot of fun. The performances are all terrific, and terrifically over-the-top, and most of what transpires is uproariously funny. In the wake of Stalin’s demise, panic ensues amongst the senior members of the Government as they scramble to boost their own standing within the Council of Ministers.
Whilst the dim-witted Malenkov is the ordained successor in the event of such a circumstance, both Nikita Khrushchev (Buscemi) and Lavrenti Beria (Simon Beale) have their eye on the prize, with Malenkov merely a stooge in their various plots to undermine each other. As the plotting and backstabbing becomes more convoluted, funeral arrangements and Stalin’s children – Svetlana (Riseborough) and the drunken Vasily (Friend) – are unwanted distractions in the race to win favour and, ultimately, seize power. Iannucchi never asks us to laugh at the cruelty that the Soviet people endured under Stalin’s regime (as many as 800 000 were shot, many more were killed by torture or perished in work camps and millions were subjected to repression and discrimination), but he does want us to see the utter absurdity in the pettiness of those perpetrating these acts of murder and cruelty. As a ruler, Stalin was both terrifying and ridiculous and those who served as enablers to his deadly reign deserve the ridicule that Iannucchi lavishes on them. At one point following Stalin’s demise, the Council debate a motion to pause arrests and executions, but no better reasons can be found for sparing people’s lives than can be offered for ordering them in the first place; which is to say that such decisions were arbitrary, usually on a whim and devoid of logic or any sense of justice.
The arrival of the blustering Zukov lifts the humour to another level and what really strikes a chord is how so much of what transpires here rings true of politics today, in Australia and elsewhere (including Russia no doubt) where the self-interest and personal ambition of those in power is prioritised to the detriment of the people they serve. Iannucchi reminds us that, whilst such men are petty and pathetic, they also possess the power to inflict immeasurable harm and, with The Death of Stalin, he and co-writers David Schneider and Ian Martin (adapting from a graphic novel series by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin) have created a slapstick tragedy which captures the terrifying absurdity of a tyrannical megalomaniac that is, without question, the funniest movie of the year thus far.