The second feature film from Armando Iannucci (creator of TV’s The Thick of It and Veep) is a similarly darkly political and foul-mouthed comedy with another fabulous cast. This one is drawn from a French graphic novel (by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin).
Purists might also find that it deviates from the facts more than a little, and the decision to have his UK and American players use their own accents is perhaps risky but understandable, as Iannucci wanted them to improvise freely and he also knew (all too well) that there’s nothing sillier than a bad put-on Russian accent.
Back in 1953, Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin sounding very East London) sends Radio Moscow into a fearful spin while he hangs out with members of the Central Committee, including the scheming Lavrenti Beria (English stage legend Simon Russell Beale), Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and the slightly gormless Vyacheslav Molotov (who else but Michael Palin?). Elaborate circumstances lead to Stalin collapsing from a cerebral hemorrhage. The morning after, the Committee and others gather to hand-wringingly ponder what to do, as their various attempts to seize power (and stop themselves being executed) become clear.
There’s lots of talk about how all the best doctors have been killed and then the whole scary process of preparing for the funeral begins, as a huge bunch of characters are introduced: there’s Stalin’s highly-strung daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), his drunk and drama-queen son Vasily (Rupert Friend), a pianist willing to die for the truth (Olga Kurylenko as Maria Yudina) and the formidable Field Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs in terrific form). Most of them get plenty of intense comic mileage from being rightly terrified of being rubbed out if they put a foot wrong.
Although it fizzles out a bit towards the end (history often lacks final-act zingers) and Iannucci’s fondness for chat does overwhelm certain scenes, this is still ruthlessly funny, if not quite knockabout hilarious, which makes you wonder if something more subversive and satirical is going on. After all, Uncle Joe wanted to make Russia great again.
Rated MA. The Death of Stalin is in cinemas now