Simon Dillon reviews the darkly hilarious historical satire.

The Death of Stalin

Very loosely based on the political tumult following Stalin's demise, Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin is a superb, darkly hilarious historical satire, and a must-see for Iannucci fans.

Amid the chaos and paranoia after Stalin's death in 1953 Soviet Moscow, different members of the Committee plot and scheme, going from sycophancy to mad power grabbing. Vain, inept Deputy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is the natural successor, and is backed by Stalin's unspeakably evil secret police chief Beria (Simon Russell Beale). However, jester turned player Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) tries to swing things in his favour, by getting the rest of the Committee to side with him, and take down Beria in the process. Weaving in and out of these schemes is Molotov (Michael Palin), an unhappy, rather pathetic individual who sold his soul to Stalinism to the point that he still insists his wife deserved incarceration, even after she is returned to him from prison. Stalin's traumatised, near-suicidal daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and his boozing, useless son Vasily (Rupert Friend), lurk uneasily in the background, unsure of their fate. Bouncing obnoxiously around everyone is aggressive war hero Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), whose military assistance is required for any potential coup.

The cast are uniformly excellent, the script razor-sharp and the direction inspired. Frankly, this is the best political black comedy in years, brilliantly satirising the climate of absolute fear that existed in Stalin's Russia. For example, Paddy Considine appears in a small role as the radio producer of live piano concerto. Towards the end of the broadcast he receives a call from Stalin himself, asking for a recording of the event. Upon discovering the broadcast wasn't recorded, he has to tell the tired musicians to re-perform the concerto, detain the audience to maintain correct acoustics (absurdly dragging a few people in off the streets, since some people had already left), and find another conductor (who mistakenly believes he is being rounded up to be sent to a labour camp) when the previous conductor accidentally rends himself unconscious. It's an hysterical, farcical opening that perfectly sets the tone (I should add the usual warning here for very strong language).

Yet what makes the film truly great is that the laughter often dies on our lips. No attempt is made to shy away from the genuine atrocities - ludicrously unfair arrests, incarcerations, torture, executions and so on - making the point that whilst the film is funny, Stalin's Russia most emphatically was not. The Death of Stalin has terrifying relevance in today's world where certain nations could well end up gripped by a similar climate of fear. One wonders what a certain Mr Putin would make of this film. CR

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