British writer-director Armando Iannucci has trained his vicious sense of humor on contemporary politics at length in his TV series Veep and In the Loop. But never before has he dragged a seminal historical event through the meat grinder of his intensely cynical comic sensibility as he does in his second feature film, The Death of Stalin. Iannucci depicts the broad strokes of the notorious Soviet leader’s 1953 passing and the resulting power struggle, mostly with veracity. But the devil’s in the details of Iannucci’s quick-witted, potty-mouthed writing and deeply irreverent direction, recasting a watershed moment as gut-busting political farce.
Iannucci briefly introduces Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) as a man whose presence imposes the constant threat of a death sentence over everyone he interacts with. The opening scenes depict madcap chaos as a terrified radio engineer scrambles to recreate an entire concert for Stalin, who phones to request a recording of the performance just after it ends. Stalin keels over shortly thereafter, and a multitude of fools rush in to fill the void or otherwise gratify their egos. Chief among them are Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), who succeeds Stalin; and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), who seethe and scheme to either control or overtake him.
Casting is a delight throughout the film. Masters like Michael Palin and Jason Isaacs fill out supporting roles, and you can feel the joy these performers take in sinking their teeth into Iannucci’s fast-paced dialogue and brilliant physical comedy bits. But the ostensible leading trio of Tambor, Buscemi, and Beale is a particular pleasure. Buscemi doesn’t command so much as demand the screen as Khrushchev, who lashes out with uncontrolled contempt for the other characters despite being relegated to second-tier status. All the actors use their native accents, and Buscemi’s Brooklyn whine has never been funnier than when he’s spitting profane fire as a Russian despot. Tambor’s usual dignified-doofus type is as well-suited to Malenkov as Malenkov is ill-suited for office, and Beale is both comical and chilling as the beady-eyed, malevolent Beria.
Iannucci toes that line between comical and chilling throughout, and in some cases winds up on the wrong side of it. The execution of innocents is essentially a running joke in the film, and while it’s funny in the abstract (as in the opening scene), it’s far less so when it’s actually seen—or repeatedly heard, just off screen. Same goes for the film’s depiction of Beria’s predilection for raping young women. While it’s historical fact, it’s impossible to shoehorn such heinous material into comedy this broad.
Iannucci may have intended this discomfort. He’s said he pursued this project because he was shocked that Stalin still commands some degree of respect in Russia, unlike Hitler in Germany. Perhaps he intended to slip bitter pills of hard realism into his comedy of megalomania, adding a different kind of shock to the material. At the very least, The Death of Stalin is enough to make one shudder with both excitement and perhaps a bit of horror to imagine what Iannucci will do with his planned next project: David Copperfield.
The Death of Stalin opened at the Michigan Theater in late March.