The Death of Stalin

review by DARA MC WADE


Armando Iannucci, creator of The Thick of It and Veep, is known for a very specific kind of political comedy. His characters are vain, narcissistic and quick to insult, each trying to stay on top of their individual political piles. In The Death of Stalin, on which Iannucci serves as co-writer and director, he transfers this cynical style of politics to Soviet Russia, a land in which backstabbings went beyond a damning press release or a demotion and more often than not could be quite literal.

An ensemble cast of British and American actors play a group of Soviet politicians, soldiers and proletariat, most keeping their natural accents and speaking in English - a pointed jab in it's own way. Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi and Simon Russel Beale lead the cast as members of Stalin's inner circle. Tambor as Stalin's deputy Malenkov, Buscemi as Khruschev, future Premiere, and Beale as Lavrentiy Beria, head of the secret police. While the historical accuracy of the film may be lacking, painting the political manoeuvrings of the cabinet in a darkly humorous light - a character once questions how Khruschev can "both run and plot at the same time" - the film successfully paints the era as a farcical tragedy, with the lives of hundreds, even thousands, decided by the inept political elite's machinations.

The humour is pitch black, which may turn some viewers away. Lists of "political enemies" that are to be killed, and the manner in which they are to be killed, are presented as ironic contrast to the political forces that enforce those deaths. Scenes of people being rounded up and taken away are presented opposite scenes where those that order these movements are making jokes about peeing. The film inspires anger as much as it does laughter, anger at the viscous fools who somehow controlled the fate of millions.

The decision to let the actors keep their native accents adds an extra level of pastiche to the entire affair, with certain characters picking up elements of film archetypes. Jason Issac's Military General comes with a working class English accent and the live-wire attitude of a Guy Ritchie crime boss, Michael Palin brings his affable, genteel, vaguely idiotic English upper-crustman act, and Rupert Friend plays Stalin's son like a spoiled rich child whose alcoholism flunked him out of Oxford - and yet the film never fails to remind us how these characters got here in the first place. They all have blood on their hands, each of them responsible in some way for the continuing existence of the beaurecratic nightmare of the Soviet state.

Much like today, the political dystopia of 1950's Russia is obsessed with the obfuscation of the truth. They lie to each other, hoard evidence of their compatriots wrong-doings while smiling at their faces, try to pin blame for one accident or another on colleagues that did nothing wrong, and threatening others just to have a perfect crystal clear image in which to present the public. A long running gag through the film has Tambor's deputy attempting to find a little girl who once took a famous photo with Stalin: he says no to the alternatives his secret service find; he says no to the actual little girl when they eventually find her; he says she is too old. Eventually they find a girl who looks the same as the original, but after all this he doesn't even get a chance to take the photo.

This film doesn't work because of the hilarious dissonance between the modern, western characters and dialogue, and the decidedly Russian 1950's setting. No, this film works because in this, it suggests that the world we live in, the one obsessed with optics, with political demagogues and the embrace of leaders who do us harm is not that different from the one shown on screen. Of course, in 1950's Russia, I could be shot for saying that, so thankfully not everything is the same.