On first glance, The Death of Stalin is a peculiar piece. A comedic account of the political hoo-hah that escalated following the sudden death of the titular monstrous dictator, played out by a talented ensemble compete with not one Russian accent between them and a tone that teeters between dark dystopia and slapstick farce. Based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Theirry Robin, the strange nature of the beast paves the way for a film that is highly offbeat and entertaining.
The witty, expletive-ridden dialogue and general air of ridiculousness pervading throughout both bear the signature of director Armando Iannucci, the king of political satire. At times the film plays out like an extended episode of Iannucci‘s TV classic The Thick Of It, with it’s fly-on-the-wall style and it’s emphasis on awkward character interactions. Yet Death of Stalin is more then just an extended sitcom set in 1950’s Russia.
Despite it’s foul-mouthed tirades and farcical moments, Death of Stalin deals with very real, very dark historical fact in a surprisingly sombre manner. For all it’s laugh out loud set pieces and purveyed awkwardness, the film never shies away from portraying the awful events that took place in the USSR around this period, nor the underlying fear of a people under the boot of a dictatorship. The film’s climax in particular drops the comedy in favour of grim reality, all the more shocking and effective following the ridiculous elements that preceded it.
Of course the film is still a rip-roaring hoot throughout. With Iannucci assembling the cream of the crop in comedy talent, the results are (if you’ll excuse the poor taste term) to die for! Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin and Jeffrey Tambor are all hilarious as Stalin’s scheming ministers, prying the comedic potential out of every line and action.
Elsewhere in the piece, Andrea Riseborough remains furiously funny as Stalin’s desperate daughter, whilst Paddy Considine is wonderfully funny in his brief appearance. But it’s Jason Isaacs as General Zhukov who gets the best gags – his ultra-macho, english thug portrayal of the famous Russian war hero both ridiculous and yet pant-wittingly funny.
The Death of Stalin is a film that’s hard to truly sum up to those who haven’t seen it. But rest assured, it’s a hilarious black comedy, soaked in atmosphere, tension and dark real-life political drama, glued together by hilarious dialogue and oddball characters. The actors may lark about for the sake of laughs, but there is still a great degree of truth to their performances, lending the film an much darker, unpleasant feel that borders on uncomfortable. It’s jarring, but it works, reminding the audience with a jolt that this is fact, albeit slightly skewed fact.
Like Iannucci‘s previous forays into political satire, Death Of Stalin treads a fine line between reality and ridiculousness, combining all the backstabbing and conniving one would expect from House of Cards with the wit and craziness of the best British sitcoms.