Over the past twelve years, British comedy writer Armando Iannucci has significantly changed the landscape of political comedy. First with his iconic BBC series 'The Thick of It', followed by its Oscar-nominated film spin-off 'In the Loop' (2009) and the endlessly award-winning HBO series 'Veep', his work has introduced a sense of anarchy, insanity and genuine pathos into the way comedy addresses the political landscape around it, offering sobering observations and provocations hidden amongst some of the most outrageously funny material you'll see on the big or small screen. With his latest film 'The Death of Stalin', Iannucci lends his indelible style to one of the darkest periods in history, an ambitious undertaking that's as prescient as it is inspiringly barmy.
Russian dictator Joseph Stalin has suddenly died, leaving his country in a state of shock and the central committee in a tailspin over who will take the reigns of power. Logically, his deputy Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor, TV's 'Arrested Development' and 'Transparent') seems the logical choice, but no one thinks he has the chops for it. Two opposing sides begin to take shape - on one side is weaselly politician Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi, TV's 'Boardwalk Empire', 'Reservoir Dogs'), on the other is sadistic spymaster Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale, 'My Cousin Rachel', 'Into The Woods'). Genuinely concerned for the safety of the people (and his own, obviously) if Beria takes any kind of power over Malenkov, Khrushchev tries to rally the committee against Beria in secret, an action equivalent to hearing a bunch of really dumb sheep into a pen.
While his previous political work had focused on the backrooms of power and the political figures on the edges, Iannucci goes for a much more ambitious canvas and much more dangerous juggling act with 'The Death of Stalin'. The setup and the cast instantly suggest comedy gold is a possibility, but you can't help but wonder where the comedy can really be found when the background is a shocking abuse of power that involved the arrest and execution of thousands of people and keeping a country in a constant state of terror. It's the genius of this film that it somehow miraculously finds a way to balance both of these so very beautifully. For every moment of almost screwball hilarity, withering insult and delicious comedy of manners, we're offered a sudden jolt of reality, a reminder of the stakes at hand in this change of power. What strikes the hardest about 'The Death of Stalin' is how utterly self-serving these men are, and that no matter how much they speak of their concern for the people and Stalin's legacy, the neck they're most concerned for his their own, at all costs. The film feels very immediate and contemporary, but that has little to do with the modern-style improvised dialogue or the myriad of British and American accents. By looking back to this moment in the past, Iannucci inevitably throws a mirror up to modern politics, one that captures something genuinely unnerving.
That isn't to say that 'The Death of Stalin' isn't as funny as we'd hoped. The way Iannucci works magic with the cast and the camera is at times more wondrous than we've seen from him before, all the more so when what's being discussed or what's happening in the background is dark as hell. The impeccable cast, which also includes Andrea Riseborough, Michael Palin, Rupert Friend, Olga Kurylenko, Paddy Considine and many of Iannucci's indelible regulars take full and rich advantage of the loose improvisational style employed, holding nothing back and letting nothing be sacred. Watching the Central Committee run around in chaos is like watching really big toddlers in a playpen fighting over who gets the best toys, and while that's unnerving, it's also wonderfully hilarious. This is an ensemble in the best sense of the word, extraordinary actors in sync with one another, ready to spar and spat at a moments notice.
For every moment of almost screwball hilarity, withering insult and delicious comedy of manners, we're offered a sudden jolt of reality, a reminder of the stakes at hand in this change over of power.
The scope of the film is also surprisingly ambitious and beautifully achieved, with quite extraordinary production design from Cristina Casali that somehow manages to feel accurate and ridiculous all at once, and Zac Nicholson's cinematography that keeps the backroom intimacy so necessary to Iannucci's work while also emulating the scale of the Soviet Union. As always, Iannucci's direction is impeccable, and his command of the material is at times quite breathtaking. 'The Death of Stalin' feels like it teeters on the edge of disaster at all times, the comedy threatening to be overwhelmed by the darkness that surrounds it, but rather than having wandered towards the edge, it's exactly where Iannucci wants it to be, ensuring that every laugh that comes from our mouths is tinged with a sense of moral danger. It's endlessly unnerving and absolutely delicious.
As a political comedy from one of the great masters of the form, 'The Death of Stalin' delivers in spades. It's crass, ridiculous, gorgeously awkward and impossibly clever, delivered with wit and irreverence by an impeccable cast. The great surprise though, and what makes this a truly great film, is how it turns so beautifully from comedy to tragedy and back, not with ease and grace but with sudden and powerful jolts. As the brilliant credits roll, you're left in a state of shell-shock, nervously laughing because you're not sure whether you should or not. This is exactly where Armando Iannucci wants to leave us. We love to laugh at the incompetence of those in positions of great power, but what 'The Death of Stalin' so deftly reminds us is that, behind every incompetent and buffoonish leader is a trail of death and destruction with widespread consequences. In 2017, for a comedy to offer this is pertinent, bold and absolutely vital.