Armando Iannucci’s excellent new film opens with a fabulous statement of purpose. On the last night of Joseph Stalin’s life he signs that night’s death warrants and demands a recording of a concert that was not recorded. The absurdity of the producer trying to replicate the concert is intercut with the chaos of a night time raid by Stalin’s death squads. The startling brutality of the raid and the hilarious absurdity of the recreated concert compliment each other brilliantly.
The Death of Stalin is a dark political comedy about the fallout of Stalin’s death as his cabinet vie for power. Ianucci has assembled an international cast of fantastic comic actors to fill Stalin’s Cabinet. Steve Buscemi leads the schemers fuelled by his frustrations with the system. Simon Russell Beale is menacing but also warmly affecting. Jeffrey Tambor is wonderfully indecisive as the confused deputy chairman. Andrea Riseborough is hilarious as Stalin’s put-upon daughter who finds herself a pawn in everyone else’s game. Michael Palin is marvellous as a man who has lived with the regime for so long that having two opposing opinions at once has become second nature. For example he mourns his dead wife whilst also decrying her as a traitor. Supporting performances are also superb. Jason Isaacs and Paddy Considine have little screen time but are wonderful comic creations.
The machinations and scheming of the main players are hilariously childish. Fantastic moments of absurdity play out, such as the men jostling to be the first car behind the one that follows Stalin’s body. Moments of slapstick punctuate the largely character and dialogue driven comedy.
I’ve seen some suggestions that this kind of satire is inappropriate. The genocides of the police state are no laughing matter. Such suggestions tend to miss the point of satire. Making something ridiculous does not remedy it of being horrifying. The absurdity of the situation only serves to make it bleaker. Besides, the violence of the film has lost none of its horror. Many of the laughs come from how terrifying this environment is, in which mentioning the wrong name at dinner may get you put on The List.
The Death of Stalin is one of the funniest and most affecting movies of the year. The film urges pathos for the grotesque characters stuck in this ridiculous game of power and death and I believe succeeds admirably.
5 / 5
Paul Salt is the co-host of One Good Thing.