Near to the beginning of Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, head of the NKVD Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) is distributing the names of all those who are to be arrested that night. Authoritative and mildly bored, he points out one name and says to kill “her first but make sure he sees it,” in a moment of weary professionalism, a microcosmic representation of the absurd horror which fuels the film’s comedy.
It shouldn’t be funny, but in the hands of Beale and Iannucci, it straddles that oh-so-narrow line between repellent and comic, between jaw-droppingly awful and gut-bustingly amusing. In the cinema I was in, there were shocked splutters, followed by laughter.
Iannucci, lead writer of cult British comedy The Thick of It and the first four seasons of Veep, takes his brand of comedy, one fuelled by escalating political insanity, relentless narrative momentum and an absolute ton of swearing, and mixes it with the elevated stakes of Stalinist Moscow. Instead of media outcry following a public scandal, the characters are faced with the constant risk of death. Instead of low-level ministers and civil servants, the core cast is comprised of the most powerful individuals in the USSR. The resulting concoction is intoxicating.
The trappings of his style transfer remarkably well to this heightened scenario. While they occupy the summit of Soviet political life, his characters are never in control of events. Instead, they are hemmed in by the legacy of Stalin, by their loyalty to the party, and by the machinations of their colleagues. They scuttle around, plotting and counter-plotting, cocking up and righting course, endlessly reacting to wild shifts in the balance of power. This instability makes the film tick, it lends every scene a boundless energy propelling it forwards.
This is complemented by tight writing. In one meeting of the Central Committee, every vote is passed unanimously because no-one wants to vote against the party. Their hands go up, one by one, like a bureaucratic Mexican wave, in what is a masterful display of comic pacing. Meanwhile, the prolonged, futile struggle between Stalin’s alcoholic son, Vasily (Rupert Friend), and a guard lasts so long that it goes from being funny, to unfunny, to funny all over again; the camera never once looks away and the background acting of the ensemble is given time to shine.
The cast is incredible. Devoid of any weak links, they sell the heightened reality of those fateful days in the wake of Stalin’s death. Particular praise must go to Beale and Jason Isaacs: Beale for his fusion of menace and humour, Isaacs’s for his rough-and-ready take on General Zhukov. Nevertheless, the film is always aware of the bleakness of its material, and never shies away from it. Beria is shown to be a sexual predator, his interactions with the main cast inflected by our knowledge of his abusive proclivities.
As the plot reaches its denouement, everything just stops being funny. There’s still the shouting and swearing and absurd leaps of logic, but it’s no longer amusing. Somewhere, almost imperceptibly, the film shifts gears, and its final moments are brutal and unsettling and impossible to forget. The Death of Stalin takes something which has no right to be funny and transforms it into comedy gold, driven by its own warped logic which has been moulded by the instability at the heart of the plot.
The Death of Stalin is excellently written, brilliantly cast, and soul-crushingly funny. Get out, and watch it this very instant.