People living under Josef Stalin didn't have an easy time of things, to put it mildly. He was a dictator who ruled with fear, forcing citizens to adore him and cater to his every whim. Anyone who opposed him, or his views, could end up on a list, spirited away in the middle of the night to be imprisoned and/or executed. His death led to a vacuum that needed filling immediately, while also giving everyone a chance to rewrite the recent narrative to play up their positive aspects in his regime while trying to downplay the negatives. And it's this turbulence, this almost farcical warping of the facts, that is looked at in a comedy that WILL make you laugh aloud without shying away from some of the nastier elements (e.g. some men are spared a bullet in the head as a change of order is delivered mid-way along the line, the difference between life and death being nothing more than a political tactic).
Based on a graphic novel, by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, it's easy to see why this material appealed to director Armando Iannucci (a sharp comedic commentator, arrguably best known nowadays for popping the bubble of British politics with The Thick Of It). Iannucci knows how hilarious it can be to observe the hoops that politicians will jump through to serve themselves while also trying to cling on to their elected positions. And he knows that those moments should all be weighed against just how the general public are affected. The scenario shown in The Death Of Stalin may be a bit extreme, but it's undeniable that politicians make life-affecting decisions every single day, sometimes with seemingly very little thought to the consequences.
Bringing all of these points to the screen, playing up the absurdity of certain moments while showing sudden threats and death, Iannucci has banded together with David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows to adapt the screenplay by Nury. That's a talented pool of people right there, and their dialogue is handed over to a hugely talented cast.
Simon Russell Beale may not be on the main poster but he's the main character, Lavrenti Beria, the right hand man to Stalin and the one who has to do the most scheming to try changing his perceived image. He was the man who handed out the "death lists". Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) is the other main figure trying to get himself into a better position, with Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) being the man stuck in the middle, replacing Stalin for the time being, despite not having any real thoughts of his own about the best way to move forward. Othe rmain figures include Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), Field Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), and Stalin's children (played by Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend).
You may have noticed that none of the actors above are Russian. I can't think of anyone who is. Certainly not Paddy Considine, Paul Whitehouse, Tom Brooke, Paul Chahidi, or any of the other supporting players are either. Olga Kurylenko is the closest, I guess, originating from Ukraine, and there are a few people in much smaller roles who seem native to the country, but that's about it. Which is fine. Iannucci has gone for the best actors, not the best Russian actors, and he hasn't made anyone put on dodgy accents that might make them sound silly. I assume, considering the reaction to the film from certain people in Russia who have commented on the content of it, that this may have been a film difficult to populate with an all-Russian cast. Nobody living there would want to fear a major backlash over their involvement here, which makes the approach from Iannucci sensible, and ultimately beneficial when it comes to the selling of the film.
Nobody puts in a bad performance and it's genuinely hard to pick a standout. I was going to praise the wonderful no-nonsense machismo of Isaacs (his appearance just over the halfway mark also standing out as a way to help the pacing of the film). Then I was going to praise Palin for tapping back into some of his golden comedic ability, especially considering he has been on both sides of such a dictatorial regime now. But Tambor made me laugh a hell of a lot, Buscemi was entertainingly determined to turn things around and not be kept on the back foot, and Beale was a great mix of weaselly charm and Machiavellian scheming at all times.
Darker than you might expect, or just as dark as it should be, The Death Of Stalin is a fantastic comedy aimed at adults, allowing Iannucci to once again chop off the heads of the arrogantly powerful with a gleaming sword of brilliant comedy. And one or two gags about a man wearing a corset.
Buy it here.
The graphic novel is available here.