Armando Iannucci created three of the funniest television sitcoms of all time: I’m Alan Partridge, The Thick of It and Veep (which has one season to go, but whose reins he has let go). He is a master political satirist and my favourite screenwriter. The Death of Stalin, his first feature film as a director, is, as befits his leap from the smaller to bigger screen, an ambitious effort: Iannucci boldly gives us a whale of a time with enormously witty dialogue, but also the very violent history of the political infighting that occurred in the days and weeks after Josef Stalin’s death in 1953.
As is his wont, he has assembled the finest of ensembles, headed by Steve Buscemi, in the performance his entire career has been leading to, as – you know you’ve always wanted it! – Nikita Kruschev. British stage lion Simon Russell Beale portrays Stalin’s chief of everything nasty and secret – police, security, torture (as head of the The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, which was essentially the secret police) – and Jeffrey Tambor’s odd, kind of weepy-skinned, straight-backed, milquetoast presence is perfectly utilized here as Malenkov, Stalin’s immediate successor but hardly his equal. Rounding out the manic rogue’s gallery conniving, conspiring, and relentlessly back-stabbing each other are Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough (who is my favourite actress at the moment) and, in a gift for any actor and a perfect gift for this one, Jason Isaacs as Minister of Defence (read: tough soldier man) Georgy Zhukov. Iannucci allows his trans-Atlantic company to all speak in their natural accents, reflecting the actual huge diversity of dialects that made up the Soviet Union.
The tonal balance of humour and historical, violent tragedy is an extremely delicate one, a high-wire act, and Iannucci’s biggest artistic coup here is getting it right. A splatter more blood here, an additional joke there, and the whole thing could have felt misguided, sordid, even outrageously distasteful. As it is, it’s something of a satirical masterpiece, and a bloody good history lesson to boot! Banned in Russia, released on limited screens in some markets, it’s a film that completely deserves your attendance at the cinema, preferably a well-patronised one, to share laughs with your comrades. There are plenty to be had.