Scotsman Armando Iannucci is the finest political satirist of the 21st century. Through his television shows The Thick of It and it’s American adaptation Veep, he has shown a propensity for mocking politicians who ostensibly claim to have the interests of the people at heart, while actually only being concerned about their own agenda of obtaining as much power and influence as is humanly possible. He also directed one of the wittiest comedies of the new millennium, with 2009’s In the Loop concerning the West’s decision to go to war in Iraq.
For his sophomore effort, and his first film in eight years, he turns his attention to one of the darkest periods in European history - the Stalin-era Soviet Union. It is a shame that we had to wait so long for Iannucci to follow up In the Loop, but this also serves to make his evolution as a director all the more evident. The camera work is more refined, as are the other technical elements, with costume design, hair and make-up, score and editing all absolutely on point here.
The stakes are much higher than anything he has done before, and that is not just because of the increased budget, high profile cast and the weight of expectation based on his own reputation growing. Where a faux-pas from vice-president Selina Meyer of Veep may result in a couple of days of bad press, even the tiniest slip in Stalin’s Russia likely will cost one’s life. This is established early on when a manic Paddy Considine scrambles to get his orchestra to redo a concert, with all spectators still present, as Stalin has requested a recording. “No one is going to be killed”, he says unconvincingly.
We meet Stalin’s cabinet, a group of ageing men forced by their eternal leader to engage in boozy dinners and watch John Wayne films, desperately stumbling over each other to win his favour. There is a hilarious tension at all times as each man so badly wants to make their leader laugh, but is equally worried about angering him. Eventually the event after which the film takes its name does occur, the result of a stroke. Stalin’s cronies gather around their boss’ body, which gives rise to a running joke about a puddle of urine, evidencing Iannucci’s uncanny ability to mix high and low humour to a devastating effect. So ensues a scramble for power.
The leadership falls to the hapless Georgy Malenkov (an excellent Jeffrey Tambor). He is extremely unsure of himself, and finding a young girl to take an iconic photograph with is seemingly far higher up his to-do-list than running the country. The toad-like chief of police Lavrentiy Beria (a devious Simon Russell Beale), positions himself well, essentially calling the shots while Malenkov is occupied with getting a new haircut. One suspects he has been planning his own ascent to the throne well before Stalin actually croaked. In opposition to Beria is Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi sporting a prosthetic nose). A twisting plot involving back-stabbing and paper-thin alliances follows. Anyone familiar with Russian history will know what happens, such is the accuracy with which Iannucci draws from his source material, a French graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin.
This is a true ensemble piece, with a number of big names who will hopefully help draw crowds into theatres to see The Death of Stalin. The film’s title does not initially scream comedy, and so this may be difficult to sell to those not already familiar with Iannucci’s work. Stalin is surely one of the best cast films of the year, with Tambor, Buscemi, Beale, Considine, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin (his first proper film role this decade), Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend all excelling. They use their natural American and British accents – Isaacs, as Red Army chief Georgy Zhukov, delivers his lines with a particularly aggressive Yorkshire drawl. This helps tie what is on screen to the modern day, as well as establish the film as comedic right from the off. Also, Russians do not speak English with a Russian accent in their everyday lives, so why go for a half measure?
Expectations ahead of Stalin opening the Toronto International Film Festival were sky high. Iannucci, a man who has mastered television on both sides of the pond and scored success with his debut film, takes to the biggest stage of his career and performs yet again. He does not shy away from the horrors of the Soviet Union’s past, and his unflinching, pitch-black comedy is exactly what we need in a time that will almost certainly be satirised by the Armando Iannucci of the 22nd century.
The Death of Stalin is released in UK cinemas on the 20th October.
Dir: Armando Iannucci. Script: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows. Starring: Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale. 106 minutes