[This is an altered version of a post originally featured on Hidden Remote]
British comedy seems to have a certain way with blackly dark subjects. 2010’s FOUR LIONS was a comedy, albeit a dark one, about characters who are suicide bombers looking to blow up the London Marathon. The Death of Stalin applies the same kind of British comedic sensibilities to one of history’s darkest periods, Stalinist Russia.
Armando Iannucci’s script is based on a French graphic novel, about the power struggle immediately after the death of Josef Stalin. We have Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev against Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria, manoeuvring their way around each other in an attempt to fill the power vacuum left behind.
Khrushchev is wily, conniving, weasel-like in his stature, trying to get the upper-hand by talking his way into a position of power. Beria on the other hand, is strong-armed, violent, ruthless and murderous using his NKVD (Soviet secret police) to strike fear into the people, forcing his way into power.
The main cast is rounded off by Jeffrey Tambor as the cowardly weak Georgy Malenkov, former-Python Michael Palin as the loyal-Stalinist Vyacheslav Molotov, Olga Kurylenko as pianist Maria Yudina, and finally Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s children, Vasily and Svetlana respectively.
The scene stealer though is Jason Isaacs as Red Army General Georgy Zhukov, a brash no-holds barred General with a Yorkshire accent. This choice to have none of the characters speak in Russian accents really helps sells the comedy, as evidenced by Jason Isaac in a recent interview with The Guardian:
“I thought, well, who are the bluntest people I’ve ever met in my life? They’re all from Yorkshire.”
THE THICK OF IT, IN THE LOOP and VEEP all combat the same political struggles, and the farce that it can be, but none are as dark as this.
The manoeuvring for power also reminds me of a two-part episode of THE THICK OF IT (also penned by Iannucci) called “Rise of the Nutters” and “Spinners and Losers.” In this two-parter the PM has decided to resign unexpectedly, leaving the members of the party scrambling to find a footing for a safe position in the future leadership. This is pretty much what happens here, except that it’s played against the backdrop of mass executions, and fanatical devotion to a fallen leader.
This film isn’t that far as detached from current events as it might seem. Jason Isaacs revealed this the aforementioned Guardian article after a conversation he had with former PM David Cameron:
“He was watching Boris – having stabbed him in the back – being stabbed in the front by Gove, and then everyone else stabbing Gove until Theresa May was the last woman standing. The blood was fresh.”
The script is typical Iannuchi, funny, stupid, farcical, slapstick. Like FOUR LIONS, THE DEATH OF STALIN is so dark in its subject matter, it really drives home how close this is to reality, like all the best British comedies. Believe or not, this isn’t written with Brexit and Trump’s America in mind. This is a testament to the writing, the performances and the direction of THE DEATH OF STALIN.
Some people may find it hitting too close to the line, but some of the best satire does exactly that. And that’s exactly where this falls.