Karl Marx famously observed that history repeats itself twice: “the first time as tragedy, and the second time as farce.” In The Death of Stalin, the two happen simultaneously. For some reason, it all feels terribly relevant.
Anyone familiar with Armando Iannucci’s work – The Thick of It, In the Loop, Veep – will feel right at home here. Ministers run through the halls of Soviet power like headless chickens, pausing in their plotting only to try and peck each others’ eyes out. But this time, there’s a nasty sting in the tail. After all, this was a brutal dictatorship that saw thousands murdered and thousands more that vanished off the face of the Earth.
Iannucci’s solution is simple but effective: dial everything up to 11. Take the opening sequence, in which Paddy Considine plays a radio producer charged with presenting Stalin with a concert recording that doesn’t exist. It’s a masterful piece of comedy, filled with slapstick and deadpan one-liners, yet we’re never allowed to forget that everyone involved is one bum note away from a bullet to the head.
It’s hard to know who to root for in this basket of deplorables, but the entire cast is on peak form. Jeffrey Tambor brings more than a little of George Bluth to Georgy Malenkov, while Simon Russell Beale’s slimy Beria – head of the secret police – would make even Malcolm Tucker wet himself a little. And then there’s Jason Isaacs as Marshal Zhukov, bristling with medals and armed with an inexplicably perfect Yorkshire accent, who steals every moment he’s on screen.
Kafkaesque and Pythonesque in equal measure, you won’t find a comedy this year that’s funnier (or darker) than The Death of Stalin. Armando Iannucci may find himself with another Oscar nomination in the near future. That, or the Russian government will have him killed.
CAST: Simon Russell Beale, Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough
DIRECTOR: Armando Iannucci
WRITERS: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows (screenplay), Fabien Nury & Thierry Robin (graphic novel)
SYNOPSIS: The Soviet leader’s final days, and the chaos in the regime after his death.