When we first heard the creative genius of Armando Iannucci was aiming his satiric sensibilities at Stalinist Russia, we couldn’t help but feel like The Death Of Stalin was a match made in heaven.
A period of time characterised by political turmoil and power struggles, its parallels with modern politics are probably too extensive than we would care to admit, but this makes for a perfect comedic set-up.
The premise is simple: after the death of dictatorial Stalin, a neurotic and bumbling power struggle erupts between the upper echelons of the Party.
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The comrades in question are played with delicious self-awareness by the likes of Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Isaacs and Steve Buscemi, each with their own disruptive form of neuroses.
The star of the show here is Buscemi, who plays Nikita “Nicky” Khrushchev, one of the committee members who is trying to capitalise (communise?) on the opportunity of Stalin’s death, while being sidelined into the thankless task of organising The Big Man’s funeral.
These little farcical moments are where The Death Of Stalin shines brightest, and Iannucci’s trademark caustic wit is the perfect vehicle to bring out the inherent absurdity of the situation.
The gobsmacked reactions when Russian bishops try to pay respects to Stalin, the ludicrous battle to be the first car behind Stalin’s coffin in the procession, and the realisation that the acting leader of Soviet Russia wears a corset are perfect examples of the level of humour you can expect here.
The film is probably sharpest for those who already have a basic knowledge of the Soviet Union, and it can be hard to keep up, but the film whistles along at a steady enough pace that it doesn’t settle anywhere long enough to give you time to think things through.
Its runtime is perfectly judged at a slim 106 minutes, which is ample time to spend in the uber-dry presence of the satire. There are moments in the middle of the film where it feels like one elongated sketch where the joke is running thin, but those worries are assuaged with the injection of brilliantly cartoonish Jason Isaacs military general Georgy Zhukov (with a Yorkshire accent no less).
The film is silly, fun and, at times very very bleak. The Death Of Stalin sometimes does misjudge its balance of caustic humour with the horrors of the time, but for the most part the equilibrium is there.
Despite all this, it’s hard not to feel like the sometimes sombre affair isn’t quite as stinging as Iannucci’s previous works, as the serious backdrop takes away somewhat from the farce in front of the camera.
If you’re expecting a chortling comedy of epic proportions, The Death Of Stalin is not what you’re looking for. But as far as black absurdist comedy goes, Iannucci’s film is a near perfect jaunt into daft politics which feels like it could be picked up and plonked in a post-Brexit setting and work just as well.
When you see the film you’ll realise just how depressing that fact really is.