Armando Iannucci has been on top of political satire for years, casting a boisterous, glinting eye at some of the crudest and most ridiculous aspects of modern government. He now turns his offence to the twentieth century, namely Soviet Russia, yet his casting of deliberately accented British and American actors to occupy the lavish and oppressive USSR keeps reminding us — were they really that different?
Set in the final days of Stalin’s reign, and his subsequent passing, The Death of Stalin features a host of marvellous character actors. They play Stalin’s committee vying with various success, to inherit the Commander-in-Chief’s power. Its main players are Steve Buscemi’s Kruschev, the snivelling, advantageous Secretary, and Simon Russel Beale’s Beria, the Chief of the Secret Police who has more in common with London’s most aggressive bouncer than a Russian police chief.
Introduced in a secret boy’s club in which Stalin’s committee try their hardest to impress with war anecdotes that play like drunken tales and sexual jokes, this committee is hilariously anachronistic.
Though no direct parallels are drawn with modern politicians — at least not overtly — Iannucci’s intent to explore how the tendency for public school boys to go mad with power when given an obscene amount of authority and persuasion over the public is superbly done and consistently funny.
The guffawing and bumbling of Paul Whitehouse, Michael Palin, and Paddy Considine make for quintessentially British humour in a laughably authentic Russian setting. Subtle facial expressions and a naturally conversational back and forth really highlight the comedic strength of the actors cast.
Considine’s role in the film’s cold opening, as Chairman Andreyev overseeing a symphony for which Stalin requires a last minute recording, is particularly dry. It calls to mind the groundwork laid by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, who got away with making fun of Hitler all the way back in 1970. The concept of dragging in the homeless to a re-recording conducted by an old man in a dressing gown and slippers is marvellously Python-esque.
Iannucci is obviously aware of this legacy with the casting of Palin, sweaty and cartoonish as Heimrich Himmler in Python and still endearing here as Vyacheslav Molotov, giving a surprisingly touching, though always witty performance, that will make you seriously consider why he hasn’t featured in a good film for years.
What makes The Death of Stalin the year’s most unique comedy is the anachronistic use of its actors, through an embrace of anachronism rather than a flirtation may have been more in tune with the film’s tone. Intercuts of Soviet cars driving down quite obviously modern motorways are delightfully bizarre but few and far between, and feel disconnected when contrasted with the richly constructed sets that all too earnestly attempt to create the atmosphere of a costume drama.
Perhaps this is why the film’s comedy works so well; everything is competent except its characters. Gorgeous set dressing and vibrant, smoky camerawork, occupied by buffoons posing as fascists works as brilliant absurdism for the most part, but had Iannucci been more willfully ignorant of historical possibilities perhaps some more surreal humour would have poked through when the dialogue begins to fall flat.
Playing with a bigger budget, stripping back Iannucci to his In the Loop days, whose small budget confines US-UK relations during the Iraq war to offices and scruffy boardrooms, may have encouraged some more opportunities to be playful with its setting.
Thankfully all the performances are so contemporarily on the mark — standouts included Jason Isaacs as General Zhukov, providing most of the film’s ridiculous violence, and Paul Whitehouse’s Anastas Mikoyan, whose every line, sadly sparse, is ferreted out with all the working-class annoyance of a tired plumber. It’s difficult to think of a better way to make light of dark subject matter than having sardonic, dry comedians essentially play themselves in traditionally terrifying roles.
On the precipice of being banned in Russia, of course, The Death of Stalin stands triumphant as a testament to the truth that anything can, and should, be satirised. Though its central premise of anachronism doesn’t shake quite enough comedy onto the screen as it perhaps could, its intent is clear and hilarious from the first scene.
Captions of each character and their role could be accused of being spoonfeeding for idiots, but, as one of those idiots, I can happily say that only a passing knowledge of Russian history — and British politics — is required to enjoy this film. The Death of Stalin is charming, rough, and absurd, and absolutely the most deserving comedy of the year so far.
To hear more of Lucas’s thoughts, tune into Take Three on Fuse FM’s Mixcloud