HAVING RIDICULED THE amoral, power hungry incompetence at the hearts of governments in his outrageously funny TV series, “The Thick of It” and “Veep”, where could writer/director Armando Iannucci turn to find a proxy for the infighting imbeciles in Whitehall and the dangerously powerful infants running the White House?
You turn to a country where amoral, power hungry incompetence is wedded to sleazy sex and a ruthless reign of terror: the Soviet Union. “The Death of Stalin” is billed, accurately as “a comedy of terrors”. And what a comedy! What terrors!
The story spans the (three year) period between the death of Stalin and the ‘election’ of Nikita Khrushchev, during which time, against a background of on-going summary executions, Stalin’s inner presidium went, briefly, from mourning to chaotic in-fighting, plotting and double- crossing to the eventual victory of the army-backed Khrushchev over the secret service-backed Beria.
And this is the stuff of comedy?
In Iannucci’s hands it is. He deftly manages to maintain a neat balance between the terror (never marginalized) and outrageous, often slapstick comedy. From the outset Iannucci establishes Stalin’s absolute authority when we see him demand the recording of a just finished live piano concert. It’s not an unreasonable request but for the fact that the concert hadn’t been recorded. Welcome to the world of Stalinist Soviet absurdity, as a panicked producer (Paddy Consadine) frantically locks everyone he can into the concert hall, dragoons innocent passers-by to fill in any vacant seats left (to ensure that the sound accurately replicates the original performance), drags a conductor (terrified) from his bed in his pajamas (to stand in for the original conductor who’s passed out) and records the re-performed symphony. The flunkies awaiting the record are furious that it all took so long.
So when Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is found comatose on his carpet (“in a puddle of indignity”), there is no absolute authority to tell his courtiers what to do. Chaos ensues. They can’t even carry his body from one room to the other without pratfalls and mayhem. It’s a woefully dysfunctional team of ruthlessly powerful sycophants and clowns who, relieved of the puppet master, turn on each other. Iannucci zeroes in on his cast of characters with laser like precision, peeling back their disarmingly banal character traits to reveal their deeper natures. Khruschev (Steve Buscemi) is the conniving master plotter disguised as the harmless clown prince; Beria (Simon Russell Beale) is the avuncular rapist and executioner; Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is the empty figurehead; Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) is the soldier hero in love with himself; Vasily Stalin (Rupert Friend) is the idiot son who needs to be either sedated or heavily managed; Svetlana Stalin (Andrea Riseborough) is the distraught daughter slowly fraying at the edges. And on and on. And somewhere out there, beyond the gilded walls of the Kremlin, slightly out of focus are the wretched people who suffer at every turn.
It’s a world of dysfunction, incompetence and the greed for power. “The Death of Stalin” may be set in Russia and may have itemized the events and characters in the aftermath of that eponymous death. But it’s really a story about the present state of the self-serving Republicans and the infighting Conservatives. Democracy or dictatorship. It’s almost as though the director were suggesting (seen through the lens of laughter) that the institutions of either of these opposite political systems were no more than facades for the interchangeable venalities and greeds of the people who run them.
As you’d expect from Iannucci, the writing (along with fellow writers, David Schneider and Ian Martin) is as spot-on sharp as it is scatalogical. Everyone curses all the time. It’s as though the conversations of his characters are as debased as their souls.
And the acting is outstanding. Steve Buscemi and Simon Russell Beale carry much of the show, but the quality of supporting cast, even in the smallest of roles (such as Paddy Constdine’s distraught, dandyish concert producer or Michael Palin’s faux-courageous Molotov) ensures that the whole enterprise never flags.
Maybe Trump/Congress and May/Parliament should be made to watch this movie over and over again until the penny drops.
But that’d probably take years
THE DEATH OF STALIN. Dir: Armando Iannucci. With: Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, Steve Buscemi, Ruper Friend, Jeffrey Tambor, Paddy Considine, Michael Palin, Simon Russell Beale. Written by: Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin; adapted from the comic book of the same name by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. Production Designer: Cristina Casali. Cinematographer: Zac Niclolson