British director Armando Iannucci has a knack for satire. He has skewered politics both at home (BBC’s The Thick of It), in the former colonies (HBO’s Veep) and in both at once; see 2009’s In the Loop, Oscar-nominated for a screenplay so sharp you could shave with it.
His latest move is to turn back the clock and turn East, setting his story in 1953 Moscow, in the final days of the reign of Joseph Stalin. On the face of it, this seems a wise move; politics in Britain and America these days are doing such a fine job of parodying themselves, the real comedy comes in the form of the daily news.
But with The Death of Stalin, Iannucci may have chosen too target-rich an environment. Adrian McLoughlin plays the Soviet dictator, with Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend as his neurotic daughter and alcoholic son. Steve Buscemi is Nikita Khrushchev, Michael Palin plays Vyacheslav Molotov, Simon Russell Beale is Lavrenti Beria, and Jeffrey Tambor is Georgy Malenkov; all big names from the Cold War.
They’re all excellent, although Tambor is problematic given recent sexual harassment allegations made against him, and his subsequent removal from TV’s Transparent. Iannucci has noted that the British release of The Death of Stalin occurred before the allegations, so there was no attempt to “Plummerize” the film.
But the bigger problem for this comedy might be its raw materials of history and tragedy. Iannucci has to stick close to the truth, whereas his TV satires have allowed him to paper the corridors of power with fictional intrigues. And while modern western politics may be awash in bellicose metaphors, Soviet Russia was a place where backstabbing and political suicide meant literally that.
Even so, Iannucci manages to find humour in the margins of the history books, even if he has to doodle it there himself. Paddy Considine does a great job as a nervous Radio Moscow bureaucrat who discovers that the just-finished symphony broadcast that Stalin wants a recording of wasn’t actually recorded; undeterred, he has the whole thing done over again, this time to a captive audience.
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