I have been noticing a trend recently in current events; I am not sure who formulated this idea first, but I believe that history is something that is doomed to repeat itself. We have seen a conservative populist come to power in America just as Ronald Regan did, we have a prime minister who is just as divisive as Margaret Thatcher, and Russia has become a political bogeyman, invading countries and covertly twisting elections. We have also seen the current political manoeuvres that have been made by the American Administration seem to reflect that of an authoritarian dictator; trying to silence the free press, marking those who disagree as enemies of the state and causing cabinet members to be frightened, if not for their lives, then for their jobs. If history repeats itself, what is the Trump administration repeating? I don’t know, but the whole thing is completely farcical, hilarious and terrifying. Much like the new film from Armando Iannucci, The Death of Stalin. (wow, what a sequeway)
Joseph Stalin, a man who ruled the Soviet Union with an iron fist for 30 years, died of a brain aneurysm. In the aftermath of his death, the Committee of the Communist Party mobilises against itself to see who will succeed to Stalin’s throne.
For those who are unaware of the writer/directors previous work, Armando Iannucci is the creator of the BBC show, The Thick of It, one of the most biting political satires of the 21st Century. This series has been remarkably topical and incredibly hilarious with its series of escalating problems that political fixer Malcolm Tucker must smooth out with creative swearing and angry threats. Those who miss the days of Peter Capaldi f-ing and blinding in an almost Shakespearean way while civil servants scramble around trying to make problems they caused go away, may enjoy The Death of Stalin.
Iannucci in this film takes his experience of dismantling the serious facade of political professionals and does similar work here making these horrific events utterly and absurdly funny. Now I should preface this by saying I am entirely ignorant of the history that is presented in the film, but I can say with some certainty that Death of Stalin is terrifyingly hilarious. What is odd is there is strange tension between these two states because the events presented in the film could be either; like those right at the beginning combine a sobering experience as soldiers round up people to torture and kill while at the same time an almost farcical sequence unfolds where a radio broadcaster tries to record an orchestra Stalin likes or he will be killed which is played for laughs.
This is thanks to a wonderful cast that ranges from Ex-Monty Python Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor from Arrested Development, Paddy Considine, Jason Isaacs, Hello to Jason Isaacs, and other serious actors like Steve Buscemi and Simon Russel Beale. All play actual people portraying a gut fear, but doing it so gut-bustingly that you won’t know whether to laugh or cry and you’ll probably end up doing both. Each of the characters is vulgar, conniving, power hungry, petty and stupid. They all have a wonderful chemistry and individuality that plays merry hell with the others, from Isaacs’ braggadocio general, Jeffrey Tambor’s simpering and Michael Palin’s sycophant to Simon Russell Beale’s creepy nature as master of spies. It is an absolute joy to watch them plot, counterplot and scramble around in the dirt clutching at power.
However, beneath all these great comic performances and lines there is still a bone-chilling message about the truth of power and of the reigns that ruled the Soviet Union. The character arcs in this film, and the way Iannucci writes them to slowly reveal that none of these people are the good guys is pure storytelling genius. I was thoroughly impressed by the skill at which I was disarmed and shocked by the actions of the characters, combining humour and horror in such a creative way. There is a scene early on when the head of the secret police gives out lists of people to round up kill or torture, and it is done with such a great sense of timing that it becomes darkly funny.
The Death of Stalin is a film that will make you roll on the floor laughing, and if you’re not careful, despair. It is a pitch-perfect puncturing of the nature of political power and games that those in government play to the detriment of themselves and the people they are supposed to be ruling. A film that is aware of the absurd things that are happening but that is also ties to the terrible reality that millions of people were living in constant fear, and millions more were disappeared under a cruel regime.
You can watch The Death of Stalin in cinemas now