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The Death of Stalin review: "A frighteningly funny satire that finds humour in historical horror"

Our Verdict

A frighteningly funny satire that finds humour in historical horror. Watch and feel better about the world.

It would be easy to declare political comedy dead in the era of America’s parody-proof commander-in-chief, but master satirist Armando Iannucci proves there are still laughs to be extracted from the corridors of power in this jet-black Kremlin-com. Wilfully absurd, but scarily plausible, it chills and tickles while exploring the power vacuum that results in the wake of Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953.

A finely tuned opening sequence sets the tone as Paddy Considine’s fretful radio producer forces an exhausted orchestra to recreate an entire performance when Stalin himself calls to demand a recording. That Stalin is played by a diminutive north Londoner who wouldn’t look out of place flogging fake handbags out of a white van goes without comment.

After dying from a heart attack, Stalin is discovered by his presidium of sycophants and scaredy-cats who, faced with his demise, panic, plot and make wary power-grabs before the premier’s corpse can cool. But whereas The Thick of It and In the Loop’s spin doctors, party aides and civil servants scheme to avoid humiliation, the clueless cowards in Stalin scramble for self-preservation, knowing the wrong word could mean death.

Adapted from the graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, its Stalinist setting proves fertile ground for Iannucci’s unique brand of political satire – most powerfully in the overwhelming paranoia that pervaded every facet of the distrustful dictator’s regime. Iannucci’s gift for deploying scathing, Malcolm Tucker-esque barbs, meanwhile, is not wasted by the assembled cast’s acid tongues.

That cast may seem an unlikely troupe, but the results are inspired. For the most part they keep their own incongruous accents to riotous effect. Simon Russell Beale, acclaimed for his stage work, is the standout as odious secret police chief Beria; Steve Buscemi is part Michael Corleone, part Littlefinger, as backroom wrangler Khrushchev; Jeffrey Tambor is perfectly ineffectual as the vainglorious Malenkov; and Jason Isaacs makes the most of his plum role as the barrel-chested leader of Russia’s armed forces.

If Iannucci’s film work to date has felt a tad televisual, there’s no such problem here. Period costume and production design impress, while the mock-doc cinematography of The Thick of It is dropped (aside from one key sequence that uses handheld photography to gut-churning effect) in favour of unfussy but effective lensing.

A couple of performances feel a little too broad and, at times, the joke can wear thin. But the fact that anyone could make politics amusing at a time when the news is scarier than most horror movies inspires a strange hope for the future.  

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The Verdict

4

4 out of 5

The Death of Stalin review: "A frighteningly funny satire that finds humour in historical horror"

A frighteningly funny satire that finds humour in historical horror. Watch and feel better about the world.