A tyrant as monstrous as Joseph Stalin isn’t the most obvious subject for a feature comedy, yet the circumstances surrounding his death and the ensuing power struggle do have a certain farcical quality around them. Director and co-writer Armando Iannucci provides the same satirical touch he applied to British politics with The Thick of It and American politics with Veep to the Soviet Union in the 1950s, deftly balancing the pettiness of the high-ranking members of the Communist Central Committee with the atrocities being done to the common people.
The first thing one is likely to notice about The Death of Stalin is the lack of Russian accents, with the opening sequence demonstrating some deliciously British cringe comedy as Paddy Considine attempts to restage an entire concert rather than fail to deliver on an unexpected request from Stalin himself. As the other primary characters get introduced performers like Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, and Simon Russell Beale all utilise their natural speaking voices – with Jason Isaacs in particular relishing in the opportunity to belt out his character’s crude and bombastic declarations in a thick Yorkshire accent. Whereas a film like Red Sparrow became unintentionally absurd through the number of European actors adopting fake Russian accents, the complete lack of dialect in Death of Stalin is a stroke of genius on Iannucci’s part. The contrast between the setting and the language adds another layer of lunacy to the proceedings, emphasising the human follies of figures like Stalin and his council despite the atrocities they commit. Major historical characters like Nikitia Khrushchev (Buscemi), Lavrentiy Beria (Beale), and Georgy Malenkov (Tambor) are introduced through slow-motion shots and dramatic blasts of Russian chorales even as they swap crude jokes over dinner at each other’s expenses, laughing uproariously like College frat boys. The grandeur of the regal environments and Chris Willis’s military-esque score serves to emphasise how childish the characters are being as they race (sometimes literally) each other to snatch whatever morsels of power they can acquire.
I was initially concerned that the comedic approach to Stalin’s regime and the aftermath of his death would make light of the crimes committed in his name, but Iannucci isn’t afraid to expose this uncomfortable reality. Jumping between exaggerated displays of mourning from the committee members to innocent people being lined up and shot can be jarring at first, but as the film progresses Iannucci displays a boldness in his approach to comedy by gradually stripping away the humour to confront the cruelty of the men we were previously laughing at. It’s not always an easy watch, and anyone expecting a simple satire may be confronting by the violence on display in certain scenes, but The Death of Stalin embraces its status as a black comedy of the darkest nature to expose a brutal truth. The laugh-out-loud moments, such as character trying to move Stalin’s body without kneeling in his urine, may be fiction, but the crimes these characters go on to commit are uncomfortable facts.
4 and a half stars.