Most audiences will be familiar with Armando Iannucci‘s work as the writer and creator of hit comedy series Veep. Now his efforts as a writer-director make a welcome return to the big screen nine years after his feature debut In The Loop with The Death of Stalin, a film based on the eponymous graphic novel from Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin.
The opening of The Death of Stalin immediately establishes the repressive rule that Joseph Stalin had implemented during his time governing the Soviet Union. Soldiers are shown rapidly carrying out killings and arrests whilst Stalin himself orders a recording of a live orchestral performance. Adrian McLoughlin, who plays the title character does so with a British gangster accent, which really works given that Stalin seems to conduct himself like some kind of hoodlum. None of the actors adopts a Russian accent which was a creative choice by Iannucci himself and this helps engage a broad audience. Upon receiving his demanded recording, Stalin suffers a brain haemorrhage which puts him in an unconscious state. This is then reported to the members of his central committee who try to act expeditiously and this sets forth the frenzied pace of the film. Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s deputy played by Jeffrey Tambor with a bumbling nature assumes control under the guidance of the assured Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). It is the battle for control between Beria, the NKVD head, and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), the Moscow Party head, that becomes the driving force for the film.
The comedy is the real joy of this feature which you would come to expect in anything written by Iannucci. There are moments of hysterical incompetence and insults that will be familiar to audiences aware of comedy from the writer-director. One such moment is when the committee members are trying to organize medical treatment for their leader only to realize he had all the good doctors executed or arrested. They then decide that a woman who provided evidence against the doctors and is gifted in sexual acts would make the best recommendations and if she fails the blame would then be pinned on ‘Lady Suck-Suck’.
The ensemble is well-cast, and every character adds to the story, though some actors excel more with the script including Paul Whitehouse as Anastas Mikoyan and Jason Issacs as the steely Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov with a Yorkshire accent. However, there are moments that do not work as well particularly when Rupert Friend as Stalin’s son Vasily tussles with a guard whilst everyone else looks on. It seems a little too forced and often moments involving his character do.
Though The Death of Stalin can be slightly over-frenetic at times so much that the plot may appear a little complex, on the whole, the active nature of this film and its quick-fire dialogue will be sure to keep audiences entertained- and laughing- throughout.