Armando Iannucci, director of political swearathon In the Loop, has returned to screens with The Death of Stalin. The film’s premise is as simple as its name suggests: following the demise of the great Comrade-in-Chief, six ex-cronies engage in a deadly battle of political cat-and-mouse, as each attempts to consolidate power for themselves.
An upfront satire of power, ambition and bureaucratic incompetence, The Death of Stalin looks set to become one of the year’s better comedic offerings. Jumping from scene to scene with startling efficiency, Iannucci’s film – a series of loosely connected sketches punctuated by moments of genuine poignancy – manages to wring humour from almost every premise. The cast (who may kindly be described as ‘veteran’; I put the median age somewhere towards the older end of the geriatric scale) prove their experience here, managing to draw from Iannucci’s script characters which are at once both lampoonable caricatures and believable human beings. The film’s morbid, bleak tone might prove too much for some, and yet I found it only made the film even more effective: Iannucci’s juxtaposition of hilarity and horror makes the humour that much funnier, and the darker moments that much more affecting.
But for all its successes, the film does occasionally attempt too much. Jeffery Tambor’s character notes at one point that he simply “can’t keep track of who’s dead anymore”, a comment which alludes to the film’s most serious flaw: its density. The Death of Stalin is not for the easily-distracted, and demands a basic understanding of Russian history from its audience. Scenes jump quickly from one to another, and often skip significant periods of time without any warning or explanation of what has elapsed.
All told though, Iannucci’s film proves itself to be that incredibly rare animal: a political farce that elicits genuine laughs. It’s funny, unpredictable, and will have you hooked for the entire length of its 2 hour run-time. Oh, and it’s got Steve Buscemi. What more could you want?