A light-hearted romp through one of the darker events in history, Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin is a bitter satire with a very dark heart. Criticised for trivialising mass murder and political terror, the film shows up the ridiculous nature of absolute political power and those who wield it. Despite its comic nature, the film keeps pretty close to historical fact (which increases the humour: where does tragedy end and farce begin?).
The film opens by transposing an event from 1949 to 1953, when Stalin requested a recording of a concert he had enjoyed on Radio Moscow. The concert had not been recorded and the musicians were turned out of bed at two in the morning to repeat the performance. The pianist, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) was indeed a critic of the Soviet regime and did ask Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) why he tortured and imprisoned his own people, and lived to tell the tale because Stalin genuinely admired artistic talent. In the film she slips a note into the record sleeve. Stalin's reaction to the note causes him to suffer a stroke and sets the plot (and plotting) in motion.
First on the scene is the head of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, Lavrenty Beria (Simon Russell Beale) whose first task is not to aid his stricken leader but to take possession of secret files he can use to blackmail his colleagues. Beria was a thoroughly loathsome individual and Beale's portrayal is sickeningly accurate ('Shoot her first, but make sure he sees it' he orders when arranging the execution of a married couple). After a hard day at the office he likes nothing better than supervising a torture or engaging in a bit of predatory paedophiliac rape (the bunch of flowers offered to the girl's parents indicates the sex was 'consensual').
The rest of the Politburo follow, headed by Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor). Nominally Stalin's deputy, Malenkov (Stalin nicknamed him 'Melanie') is unable to take any decision without knowing he is on the 'right' side. Beria quickly takes charge of Malenkov, and thus the Soviet government, sealing off Moscow and replacing army guards with his own NKVD men. Realising what Beria is up to, and with his own ideas and agenda for reforming the state, Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi) begins plotting against Beria despite being kept busy organising Stalin's funeral (an arrangement proposed by Beria himself). This leads to some of the funniest scenes in the film as a frustrated Krushchev is torn between political intriguing and having to choose a pair of curtains ('Ruched or non-ruched?').
Slowly, and with much effort, Krushchev manages to convince the rest of the Politburo that Beria intends to seize power and use Stalin's secret records to have them all eliminated. Realising he needs the support of the army to overcome Beria's NKVD, Krushchev approaches Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), head of the army and severely cheesed off at having his men confined to barracks. Zhukov agrees to support a coup against Beria if the rest of the Politburo (including the dithering Malenkov) is 100% behind it. Taking a gamble, Krushchev says they are.
At Zhukov's signal, during the funeral the army re-takes its place from the NKVD. At a Politburo meeting designed to seal Beria's grip on power, a secret alarm brings Zhukov and a small group of armed officers into the room. Beria is arrested, summarily executed, and cremated in the Kremlin grounds.
This film is literally packed with excellent performances by a group of actors at the top of their game. Jeffrey Tambor's weak-willed Malenkov ('No problem! I mean, er, No! Problem!') is easily pulled this way and that until he no longer knows which way he’s facing: 'I'm the head of the government and I have no idea what's going on,' he sighs, slumping into a chair. Molotov (Michael Palin) is the ultimate committee man and stickler for regulations and procedures even as he understands the absurdity of the struggle for power: 'Stalin would be loving this!'
The standout performance in the last half of the film is Jason Isaacs' Zhukov. Played with a Yorkshire accent, he is a tough-talking, no-nonsense man of action, seems to be the only person with a genuine sense of grief at Stalin’s demise: 'Seen a lot of death, but that is a loss', and very impatient with the political pirouetting going on around him: 'Spit it out, Georgie!' he yells at Malenkov. 'Stagin' a coup 'ere!'
Also in the mix are Stalin's children, the despairing Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough): 'I may as well just shoot myself like mother', and spoiled weakling Vasily (Rupert Friend) who really did send the national hockey team flying into a blizzard causing an aircrash which killed them all.
Filmed on location in Kiev the settings easily convince us we are in Russia in the 1950's, and the photography uses a rich colour palette which emphasises the opulence of the architecture and deep reds of the Soviet banners.
If there is an aspect of the film that reduces its impact, it is the overuse of bad language. Every character seems to use the 'f-' word in its many variations in every other sentence. The screenplay is intelligent enough not to need this; it is distracting and obscures the script's genuine wit. Concentrated in Zhukov's mouth the swearing would make sense, being in character, but overuse dissipates its effect.
As a satire based around Stalin it could be said the film is over 60 years too late (Charlie Chaplin made The Great Dictator at the height of Hitler's power) but that is to miss the point. The use and abuse of political power is timeless: it spans all eras, all regimes, from ancient Rome to Watergate (and beyond). The Death of Stalin is an illustration of human behaviour in a particular setting, rather than a Soviet comedy. The darkness of the subject, when so much is at stake, only serves to highlight the folly with which human affairs are governed.