I consider writer-director Armando Iannucci to be a comic genius. The creator of Veep cut his teeth in British TV comedy working with Steve Coogan on his Alan Partridge character, then created a series called The Thick of It, which like its American offspring is foul-mouthed and laugh-out-loud funny. He bridged the two series with a first-rate feature film about English and American politics called In the Loop. Now comes an even more ambitious endeavor, The Death of Stalin, based on a French comic-book series depicting the aftermath of the notorious Soviet dictator’s demise. It is brilliant and hilarious, a delicious mélange of political satire and farce.
The premise is straightforward: Josef Stalin dies by choking in his office one night. When his body is discovered the next morning, his closest colleagues gather and frantically jockey for power, exposing their own peccadilloes while sabotaging each other’s chances to become Russia’s supreme leader.
Like Veep, this movie depends on great writing, expert casting, and unimaginable rehearsals to refine the timing, delivery and staging that make the most of a knockout screenplay. (Iannucci wrote the script with longtime colleagues David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows, based on a screenplay by Fabien Nury.) The filmmakers don’t assume we know anything about the history they are depicting; you don’t have to take an entrance exam to enjoy their movie. What’s more, they aren’t afraid to be outlandish or silly.
The cast is daunting, to put it mildly. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to choose Steve Buscemi to play Nikita Krushchev, but he is superb, an adjective that applies equally to Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs, Rupert Friend, Paddy Considine, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, and the other members of the ensemble. Beale, primarily a stage actor, is overwhelming in his ferocious interpretation of Levrenti Beria, the wiliest and nastiest man in the Soviet Politbureau. Adrian McLoughlin sets the movie on its comedic course with his wholly unexpected take on Stalin.
I have seen this movie twice in six months’ time and would readily watch it again after taking a breather. Iannucci conducts the proceedings like the conductor of a great orchestra with an array of virtuosos at his command. The Death of Stalin is a breath of fresh air and a genuinely great screen comedy.