Armando Iannucci's The Death Of Stalin a dazzling black Russian comedy
Master of political satire Armando Iannucci takes his trademark high-stakes back-stabbing farce east with The Death Of Stalin, a ghoulish black comedy that deftly melds historical fact and bile-drenched fiction, writes Damon Smith
THE DEATH OF STALIN (15, 107 mins) Comedy/Drama. Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Jeffrey Tambor, Olga Kurylenko, Dermot Crowley, Paul Chahidi, Paul Whitehouse, Adrian McLoughlin. Director: Armando Iannucci
GLASGOW-born writer-director Armando Iannucci continues to make hay from the grubby business of politics in The Death Of Stalin. Set in 1953 Moscow, this delicious, razor-sharp satire builds on the giddy success of TV sitcoms The Thick Of It and Veep, and the Oscar-nominated 2009 film In The Loop, which brilliantly lampooned US and UK military intervention in the Middle East.
The script, co-written by David Schneider and Ian Martin, is polished to a dazzling lustre.
"I have a bad back," moans one member of Stalin's inner circle. "Too much social climbing," sneers a rival.
The vast arsenal of one-liners is delivered at a delirious and frenetic pace by a well-drilled ensemble cast.
Wisely, no-one attempts a cod-Soviet accent, which could be an unnecessary distraction from the high-tempo verbal ping pong. Instead, we have a bewildering melting pot of English and American voices that reflect the escalating pandemonium following Stalin's inglorious demise.
Bizarrely, Jason Isaacs chooses a Yorkshire burr, as thick and satisfying as freshly poured treacle, for his foul-mouthed and bullish Red Army general, who prefers to make his point with the pull of a trigger. Ee bah gumboots, it's grim out east.
Moscow is a city under the yoke of a tyrannical General Secretary (Adrian McLoughlin), who mercilessly executes dissenters in the ranks. When Stalin's meddling creates unnecessary panic at a live radio recording of a piano concerto, virtuoso soloist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) voices her displeasure in a letter.
When the General Secretary reads her swingeing missive, he collapses and dies. The following morning, chief of security Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) is first on the grim scene and gathers classified documents that could prove valuable in the coming days.
Close adviser Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) arrives soon afterwards.
"Our General Secretary is lying in a puddle of indignity!" he rages, surveying the tragic tableau.
They are quickly joined by other members of the inner circle including Stalin's bumbling deputy Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Lazar Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley), defence minister Nikolai Bulganin (Paul Chahidi) and Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse).
Behind the scenes, these men forge secret alliances to fill the power vacuum and worm their way into the affections of Stalin's distraught son Vasily (Rupert Friend) and daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough).
The Death Of Stalin is a ghoulish black comedy that deftly melds historical fact and bile-drenched fiction. Iannucci relishes parallels to modern-day diplomatic wrangling as over-inflated male egos collide head-on.
Tragedy and delirium march side by side, blood flowing freely as the pursuit of self-promotion descends into farce and one bewildered politician despairs: "I've had nightmares that make more sense than this!"
Iannucci's beautiful nightmare is a dizzying dance macabre to savour.
:: In cinemas from Friday October 20.