Every so often, a satire comes along that transcends the form. ‘The Death of Stalin’ is very much that. Go see it.
There’s something truly glorious about seeing Joseph Stalin played as though he was a North London gangster. And that’s how Armando Ianucci’s The Death of Stalin grabs you from the outset – it frames the inner Kremlin circle of the 50s as being something akin to a scene cut from the early work of Guy Ritchie, and at the same time, a dark, dark Monty Python sketch. From all sources you’ll find the best satire emerges, and there’s nothing more effective than ridicule to bring down monsters a peg or two – hell, Mel Brooks has built his career on Hitler-as-Judy Garland, and that worked a treat.
The Python element is enhanced in no small measure by the presence of (a truly wonderful) Michael Palin as part of the inner cadre of Stalin’s lackeys, all of whom are scrambling in the event of the old boy’s death to fill the power vacuum.
Ianucci’s brilliant film – and it is a note-perfect, superbly made satire – finds its strengths in two primary areas. Initially, it’s the fact that with a different direction, and with minor tweaks, the film could have been shot as a dour, deadly serious drama. Imagine all of these characters with clipped British aristocrat accents, or treacle-heavy Russian ones and the film reads as a maudlin, imposing historic drama. But given the casting (Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Paddy Considine, Palin et al) and the way Ianucci’s scenes often play as farce, with his docu-drama-style camera roaming about – most of the players speaking as though they just ducked off to the pub for a pint before showing up…it’s a laugh-out-loud funny comedy. Probably one of the best comedies in years.
It works as a (satirical) historical document, as you cannot help but imagine how things in real life might not have played out all too differently than they do in this film, and it also speaks volumes to anyone who might be a trifle concerned about the likes of Putin, Trump, Kim Jong-un, or any authoritarian figure seeking to benefit from a cult of personality. The maddening bureaucracy and group-thinking present in any party room or public service office also take a heavy beating, where the line is blurred between comedy and too-real-to-be-funny sequences.
Armando Ianucci, who made his bones doing equally stunning spins on British government (The Thick of It, In the Loop) and American politics (Veep, which is astonishing television) has in this film a comedy for the ages: brutal, scary, hilarious, daunting and infinitely memorable. It’s a magnificent achievement.