|Starring||Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, Steve Buscemi, Rupert Friend, Jeffrey Tambor, Paddy Considine, Michael Palin, Simon Russell Beale, Paul Whitehouse|
|Release||20 OCT (UK) Certificate 15|
A film like The Death of Stalin isn't going to redress this balance, but it doesn't let you forget how high the stakes were. After Stalin's death the Central Committee hastily reform around Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor, who plays him as almost apologetic for being there) while others vie for power. The ensemble cast Iannucci's roped in is so strong it can't very well fail: at the dysfunctional centre are Buscemi's Khrushchev, Michael Palin's Molotov and Simon Russell Beale's horribly conniving Beria. Everyone stabbing one another in the back and flailing about in their incompetence isn't new ground for the creator of Veep and The Thick Of It, but he does break with expected proceedings in a few ways.
First: none of the signature faux-documentary camerawork, which always made implicit the idea of getting a peek behind the curtains at something They don't want you to see. It wouldn't quite fit here, not least because the construct would fall apart: the visual grammar of The Thick Of It suggests the presence of a cameraperson, and even though that's implicit and easily forgotten, it'd be jarring once people started getting shot and you began to think of the camera as a witness.
Second, it's not as funny as his previous work, or at least not in the same way. The stage isn't quite set for the sort of creative foul-mouthed invective usually spat about the place, partly because of the period setting. The choice to have the characters speak English in their native accents lobbies against this, though: I'd feared it might be distracting (I couldn't get past the cut-glass British-sounding Nazis in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) but you know you're on safe ground once Big Joe himself starts swearing in estuary tones. The fact they all speak like this is funny in itself and allows for deeper comic characterisation, especially in the case of Jason Isaacs's Georgy Zhukov via Sheffield.
There's real horror in it too at times: a couple of deaths are shocking and brutal, far from played for laughs and shown up close. It's a risk, where it could've been guilty of overreaching, but there's a chaotic tone here established into which it all fits quite snugly.
Since 2005 Iannucci's held up a mirror to a period in politics characterised by the loss of faith in traditional leaders and a growing sense that the systems and hierarchies we trusted are broken, and populated by agents no more competent than we would be. Brexit and Trump are the end-products of this drift, or maybe just steps along the way to something unimaginable. The Death of Stalin is a reminder that solutions found towards ideological extremes are no less likely to be chaotic – and involve a lot more folk getting shot in the back of the head.