Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is nearly two hours of men in bad suits bickering, but if you have to sit through nearly two hours of men in bad suits bickering you would want it to be written (and directed) by Iannucci. So there’s that, but it’s still not up there with his previous film, In the Loop. It’s funny but not as funny, misfires in places, and by the end you are rather thinking: come on, one of you seize power, so we can all just get out of here.
On this outing, Iannucci has substituted Whitehall and White House backbiting (The Thick of It, Veep) for Russia in 1953, the sudden death of Stalin, and the fierce scramble to succeed him. It satirises power, ambition and incompetence, and features an ensemble cast with Simon Russell Beale as Beria (security chief), Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov (deputy leader), Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev (party secretary), Michael Palin as Molotov (minister for foreign affairs) and Paul Whitehouse as Mikoyan (can’t remember). And if you do have to sit through nearly two hours of men in bad suits bickering, you would wish them to be played by the above, so there is also that, admittedly.
The film opens with Stalin still alive, demanding a concert be reperformed so he might have a recording, forcing his staff to watch John Wayne westerns in his private screening rooms, issuing today’s list of citizens to be murdered, with Beria relaying his instructions: ‘Shoot her before him but make sure he sees it.’ Then he collapses (a brain haemorrhage) but his guards are too terrified to go into his room, so he’s left on the floor, lying in his own urine. This actually happened, as did so much else here. Events may seem outlandish, but it’s all true, Iannucci has said. Eventually, there is much bickering as to how to shift the body and who has to ‘kneel in the piss’ which is funny but that’s right at the beginning, before you are somewhat bickered out.
This doesn’t have the hand-held, improvised look of Iannucci’s past work, as it’s more staged, and there isn’t a great deal of drama. Instead, it’s all the main characters toadying then backstabbing, backstabbing then toadying, as they compete for survival. They’re all ridiculous buffoons, one way or another, but still there isn’t much consistency in character. One minute, for instance, Tambor’s Malenkov is a weak, vain dimwit and the next minute, not so much. Plus, I do have to mention the accents. The British cast speak with British accents while the American cast speak with American accents, which, in fact, is fine — far better than anyone employing a fake Russian accent. But when Jason Isaacs trucks up as a Russian general, he is broad Yorkshire, which is as weird as it is pointless, and entirely distracting.
Iannucci does have to walk a tricky tightrope tonally, given the sheer brutality of Stalin’s regime, which dispatched, tortured and raped so-called ‘enemies’ on an industrial scale, and which forms the backdrop here. There’s the occasional misfire, as when one character detains a young woman for the sole purpose of raping her, which seemed decidedly off, and at odds with everything else, but otherwise Iannucci manages it well. In my view, you can make fun of anything so long as it’s funny enough, and as I did not, generally, feel uncomfortable, it is probably sufficiently funny, if not as funny as you’d hoped.
This is not Iannucci’s best work, but as Iannucci on a bad day is better than most on a good day, and there are brilliant moments (a terrific scene with Molotov and his wife), and you just can’t argue with Simon Russell Beale — in anything — it’s not nearly two hours wasted. Plus, one of them does seize power at the end. Hurrah!