The era is 1953, the premise is politics and power, and the stage is a hyper-anglicized Russia, jam packed with influential figures clamouring for authority following the titular death of the country’s most beloved dictator.
Well, the country are forced to love him, anyway. Armando Iannucci’s makes clear early on that his film won’t shy away from the darker aspects of this period of Soviet regime - soldiers line up terrified citizens to be tortured and shot who have wronged Stalin in some obscure, negligible way - but Iannucci does so through injecting a farcical quality into each scenario that prises laughter from horror.
Take the opening segment, for instance, in which Paddy Considine’s character, in charge of a concert being performed, is requested by Stalin to send him that concert’s recording. There’s a slight problem - the concert wasn’t recorded. What follows is a hilarious scheme to redo the performance and put the audience’s bottoms back in seats, with that underlying acknowledgement of Stalin’s wrath if this recording doesn’t get to him serving to pierce through the farce. This is The Death of Stalin in miniature: a facetious take on horrifying subject matter, morphing a passage of wicked history into something to poke fun at - even if the threat is everpresent.
Except that, sometimes, the threat isn’t. In combining the sombre with the slapstick, Iannucci’s well-intended attempt to portray his characters as despicable figures responsible for the mass genocide is unfortunately diluted. Many films pull this balancing act off - Wes Anderson’s filmography is a good example - but here, save for a (literal) shot nearing the film’s close, The Death of Stalin leans too heavily on the laughs for the horror to muster much impact.
Thank God then that the laughs are plentiful. The film is a single-premise joke (‘What if important political Russian figures were reduced to bumbling British buffoons?’) stretched to its limit, and the wheels nearly fall off before the film thankfully opts to prioritise its dramatic heft, but at least the joke is inherently funny. These figures - Buscemi as Khrushchev, Isaacs as Zhukov, Tambor as Malenkov, etc - are each hilarious in their own way (though, not unexpectedly considering Iannucci, are all excessively foul-mouthed), staging set-pieces of physical comedy and riffing on a script that leaves apt room for improvisation. It’s Simon Russell Beale as secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria that leaves a lasting impact, carrying the weight of the film on his shoulders. His character conforms to caricature just like the rest, but there’s both a malevolent and a tragic tone about his swagger, which is carried right up til the ending.
Not everything works - and perhaps the most reprehensible choice Iannucci makes is choosing such a straight retelling of Russian history in spite of a totally-not-straight-faced approach - but with The Death of Stalin, he has formed a bigger and better follow-up to his widely celebrated In The Loop. Swapping Parliament for The Kremlin, his latest is both less stagey and much funnier, though it doesn’t exactly capitalise on all its potential for satirical exploits that a trip to Mother Russia supposes. It’s a Molotov cocktail of absurdist humour and stinging political outrage that’s well worth the price, though the measurements aren’t exact and the bartender is a little too potty-mouthed for your liking.