Expert political satirist Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It, Veep) is back on the big screen, this time skewering Soviet Russia with a fabricated version of the behind-the-scenes political struggles surrounding Josef Stalin’s death in March of 1953. Farcical regimes are obviously applicable to current political scenarios but, for all the good jokes, The Death of Stalin lacks the real-world wallop of Iannucci’s previous big-screen offering, In the Loop.
The Scottish director has assembled a stacked cast, most of whom humorously perform their real-life roles in their native tongues, à la Monty Python, with no hint of a Slavic accent from any of the British or American cast. The idea of Stalin as a cockney London geezer is funny on its own, though Iannucci doesn’t afford British theater actor Adrian McLoughlin a great deal of screen time before his Man of Steel collapses in a puddle of his own urine.
It is left to the assorted members of the Central Committee to clean up the mess and prepare for the next era of the USSR. Among them is the head of the NKVD secret police, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Stalin’s deputy, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), and Moscow Party Head Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), all of whom initiate the official protocols that follow a leader’s death, all the while individually scheming to take charge as the new General Secretary.
The principal cast is uniformly excellent, with scene-stealing turns from the supporting players as well, particularly Rupert Friend as Vasily, Stalin’s drunkard son. It’s the ensemble’s rapport that carries so much of the film. Iannucci and his co-writers (David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows) construct a cascade of potty-mouthed dialogue that requires dexterous rhetoricians. That being said, the expletive-ridden tirades pale in comparison to the inventive barbs of The Thick of It and In the Loop. And, when compared to the 21st century Anglo-American backdrop of those political satires, The Death of Stalin’s Soviet setting does lack that kind of ferocious relevance.
The production and costume design is impressive. The imposing architecture is well captured, but it’s the interiors that are most striking. Recording booths and bathrooms perfectly capture the classic Cold War aesthetic — with green-tiled backdrops even Guillermo del Toro would be proud of — but that further distances this black comedy. It all feels like an elaborate set, rather than any kind of tangible world. The screenplay is based on a French comic book, which may go some way to explain the contained nature of the drama. Shots of vast crowds and the swarming proletariat imitate social scale, but Iannucci is exclusively concerned with the goings on inside the Kremlin walls. Even the considered visual elements feel stagey, resulting in a film that doesn’t feel cinematically vital.
Most troubling is the fact that the Committee’s heinous crimes are uncomfortably positioned as a backdrop to the drama. Sequences of kidnapping, torture and murder are shot with a grounded aesthetic but glossed over in favor of yet more snappy dialogue scenes. Iannucci clearly thought he could get away with that level of dark comedy, but it doesn’t fly. In the end, the humor fades away in favor of political machinations, but the film’s killer gags are still numerable. Watching them delivered by expert performers is The Death of Stalin’s primary pleasure.
Benedict Seal (@benedictseal) is a UK-based film journalist for the likes of Bloody Disgusting, VODzilla.co and New On Netflix.