Film: The comedy that exposes the horror of Stalin

Simon Russell Beale, Olga Kurylenko and Steve Buscemi in The Death of Stalin

The death of Joseph Stalin might not sound like a promising starting point for a rip-roaring comedy. Yet, in the hands of Armando Iannucci, the genius behind television shows such as Veep and The Day Today, the murderous dictator’s expiration provides perfect inspiration for a film that is hilarious, but with a deeply sinister undercurrent.

The action in The Death of Stalin (★★★★★, cert 15, 107 mins) unfolds over the course of a few days, starting just before Stalin’s sudden death and going on to chart the plotting and manipulation that took place in the aftermath. Amid the power vacuum, security chief Lavrentiy Beria, played with relish by Simon Russell Beale, emerges as a key pretender to the throne, with Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev his main rival.

Anyone who has seen Iannucci’s political comedies before will be fully aware of what to expect: razor-sharp verbal sparring mixed with moments of unbridled silliness. (The highlight of the latter is some wonderfully juvenile slapstick involving Stalin’s corpse and the wet patch the dictator has left on the carpet.)

Iannucci enjoyed success with his first foray into feature films, In the Loop, but that felt very much like an extended version of his magnificent sitcom, The Thick of It. His achievement here is far greater. Sure, the sense of a very British kind of comedy is hard to shift, given the presence of so many homegrown actors (Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Paul Whitehouse, etc) hamming it up beautifully. Yet the way the serious and violent side of this story is interwoven with the comedy raises it way above the knockabout.

I’m no student of Russian history, so I can’t say for sure how accurate the detail is, but one thing is undeniable: Iannucci and his company bring home the unspeakably evil nature of Stalin’s regime. The film creates its own queasy version of reality, with its sludgy grey palette and range of accents (from American to cockney), that somehow still feels utterly authentic.

For The Death of Stalin to work, the violence of Uncle Joe’s reign of terror has to properly bite. It does, and shockingly. Murder is meted out in a coldly bureaucratic fashion as people’s names are casually added or removed from execution lists. Rape, murder and torture appear just off camera, but the audience is left in no doubt about what is going on in the windowless bunkers and prison yards.

In an era in which Venezuela has been turned into a basket case by its socialist leaders and the late Fidel Castro was widely praised following his death, The Death of Stalin is a timely rejoinder to anyone who might give murderous dictatorships a pass for partisan political reasons. That Iannucci has pulled this off in a film that is as funny as it is terrifying makes it an all-the-more remarkable feat.