The Death of Stalin review – Armando Iannucci has us tremblin' in the Kremlin

The Thick of It and Veep writer’s tilt at Soviet-era satire, which opens the Toronto film festival, boasts an outstanding cast, with Simon Russell Beale as the secret police chief with a satanic surprise

Fear rises like gas from a corpse in Armando Iannucci’s brilliant horror-satire The Death Of Stalin. It’s a sulphurous black comedy about backstairs Kremlin intrigue following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 – adapted by Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin from the French graphic novel series by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin.

Faced with the unthinkable demise of Stalin, so long revered as nothing less than a god, these Soviet dignitaries panic, plot and go in and out of denial: a bizarre, dysfunctional hokey cokey of the mind. Everyone is of course initially terrified of saying out loud that he is dead – a quasi-regicidal act, which could, in any case, turn out to be wrong and interpreted as traitorous wishful thinking. But dead he is, and Iannucci shows that it is like the casting, or lifting, of some witch’s spell. All these ageing courtiers and sycophants have suddenly been turned into a bunch of scared and malicious children.

The Death Of Stalin is superbly cast, and acted with icy and ruthless force by an A-list lineup. There are no weak links. Each has a plum role; each squeezes every gorgeous horrible drop.

Michael Palin is outstanding as Molotov, the pathetic functionary with the kindly, unhappy face who has long since sacrificed his marriage and self-respect on the altar of Stalinism; Steve Buscemi is a nervy Khrushchev, who morphs from uneasy court jester into a Soprano-esque player; Andrea Riseborough is compelling as Stalin’s wan daughter Svetlana, driven to a borderline-Ophelia state of trauma and dread. Jeffrey Tambor is hilarious as the vain and preposterous Malenkov, and so is Rupert Friend as Stalin’s deadbeat boozer son, Vasily. Jason Isaacs gets sledgehammer laughs as the truculent war hero Zhukov, to whom he gives a muscular northern accent: a down-to-earth man of action who is to carry out the film’s final, brutal coup.

And the first among equals is Simon Russell Beale as the toadlike secret police chief, Beria, a figure oozing evil. For decades, I wondered if this extraordinary theatre actor would ever get a screen role worthy of his stage career. Now at last he has. His Beria is the dark heart of the film: a man who disingenuously suggests softening or “pausing” the programme of beatings, imprisoning and torture, so that reformists can be reviled for ideological disloyalty and weakness, and he can be credited for restoring authority. It is Beria’s cruelty and inhumanity that puts the warhead on the satire.

Watch a trailer for The Death of Stalin

Beale’s great scene, maybe the best scene in the film, is when he, Molotov and Khrushchev are having a conversation, and Beria grinningly insists on hearing again Molotov submissively and piously say in a loud, clear voice how his wife deserved to be taken away and executed for treason. Beria has got a satanic surprise in store for Molotov: what Greene might have called the worst horror of all, although poor dopey Molotov doesn’t recognise it as such. If you re-read the final scenes between Winston Smith and Julia from Nineteen Eighty-Four and then watch this scene, you can have your own version of Marx’s dictum about history as tragedy, then farce.

Paddy Considine also has a tremendous small role at the very beginning as Andreyev, the radio producer who presides over a live transmission of a piano concerto, featuring a soloist, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) who is to play a fateful role in the action. Towards the end of the broadcast, Andreyev is aghast to receive a phone call from Stalin himself, curtly asking for a gramophone recording of the event. He then has no choice but to tell his exhausted musicians to re-perform for a recording, and to round up another conductor in circumstances reminiscent of preparing someone to be sent to a labour camp. And his mention of their glorious leader triggers an outburst of neurotic clapping among those present, a droll allusion to the myth that official applause could go on virtually for ever in that era when no one wanted to be the first to stop.

Stylishly plugging into the classic Soviet-era mode of subversive satire, and melding it with his own, Iannucci has returned to his great thematic troika of power, incompetence and bad faith. Like the spin-doctors and aides of his TV satires The Thick of It and Veep, these poisonous Soviet rivals are orphaned by the times. The real power – PM, president, general secretary of the Soviet Union – to whom these people pay lip-service but have forgotten why, is absent, somewhere beyond or above or below them. They scurry around in an eternal headless-chicken dance whose purpose is to make sure that someone gets the blame. But in The Thick of It or Veep it was different. Get something wrong, and for the most part all you endured was media embarrassment. Here you get a bullet in the back of the head. I wonder if anyone from Vladimir Putin’s cabinet will see The Death of Stalin. They might see something awful being born.

  • The Death of Stalin was showing at the Toronto film festival and will be released in UK cinemas on 20 October.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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