The Death of Stalin is The Thick of It in Communist Party clothing

Armando Iannucci’s film uses visual grandeur to heighten the petty, scabrous humour.

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The camera has shed most of its wobbles. The cuts are softer, the score full of pomp and circumstance, the sets impressively authentic. But there can be no mistaking The Death of Stalin for anything other than The Thick of It in Communist Party clothing.

The director Armando Iannucci has made the comedy of panicked political manoeuvring his stock-in-trade, from that BBC sitcom through to its film spin-off In the Loop and its US counterpart Veep. In The Death of Stalin, which Iannucci adapted with Ian Martin and David Schneider from a French graphic novel about the power-grab following the Russian tyrant’s demise, he uses visual grandeur to heighten the petty, scabrous humour. Playing it straight is the secret. Turn down the volume and the picture would resemble any costume drama. Crank it back up again and the air becomes saltier than the Seregovo mine.

There’s an attention to period detail reminiscent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Life of Brian (Michael Palin also pops up in the cast) and none of the stiffness or hindsight of bad historical storytelling. Colloquialisms litter the script (“It’s been a busy old week”) and the cast don’t even affect Russian accents. All nyets are off.

Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) comes on like a foul-mouthed cockney crime boss. His daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), suggests an overworked line manager who’s had it up to here, while Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) is as neurotic as a New York standup – he even goes over his own remarks at the end of each evening, noting which gags flew and which flopped. “I made a joke about the navy – no laughs,” he tells his wife (Sylvestra Le Touzel) as he gets ready for bed. She jots down an entry in her little book: “No more navy jokes.”

When Stalin collapses and dies, the members of his inner circle jostle with one another like fractious children in a game of musical chairs. The race for power becomes an actual race at one point, with four party members running toward Svetlana in the rush to express their condolences. Eventually the wheedling Georgy Malenkov moves into prime position as General Secretary. As played by Jeffrey Tambor, who raised the bar in cowardice and sycophancy as the chat-show sidekick Hank in The Larry Sanders Show, Malenkov is pathetically funny. Even once he has ascended to a position of ultimate authority, he is still bet-hedging and fence-sitting. Expressing an opinion becomes as daunting to him as crossing the Sahara without a map.

In the Loop featured an international incident arising out of the word “unforeseeable”, so it’s no shock that language in The Death of Stalin has an explosive capacity. (It can even kill, if we are to believe that Stalin’s death was precipitated by the vengeful note he is reading moments before he collapses.) Trying to reassure Svetlana that he will keep her safe, Khrushchev accidentally undermines his own intentions by using the word “harm”. She hadn’t even considered that she might be in peril and now here he is bandying around a nasty word like that.

Violence itself isn’t much seen (a body rolled down stairs during a torture session passes briefly into shot) but language does the job more effectively. Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the calmly terrifying head of the secret police, briefs a soldier on the exact methods of carrying out the latest round of executions. “Shoot her before him,” he says, indicating two names on a list, “but make sure he sees it.”

The film is so even and consistent in its arctic sensibility that it sometimes feels like a string of elegant variations on the same joke. (Jason Isaacs, playing the Red Army officer Georgy Zhukov as a raucous rugger-bugger, brings a welcome shot of coarseness in the second half.) But Iannucci’s cinematic language has progressed since In the Loop and he can give the tiniest visual gag a dark afterlife. Scenes of a conductor being dragged on stage in his dressing gown to lead a concert for Stalin’s benefit, or Khrushchev hastening to his leader’s side with pyjamas still under his suit, are daft in their own right while suggesting also a country sleepwalking blearily through horror. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 19 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions