It is a truth universally acknowledged that giving historical figures deliberately unsuitable English regional accents is a reliably amusing idea. A cockney Stalin, a Yorkshire Zhukov, a New Yorkian Khrushchev; these are jokes that keep on giving, and sustain Armando Iannucci’s new film at times.
The film portrays the final moments of the titular dictator, and more centrally the bitter and terrifyingly petty struggle for power that followed his death. Our protagonist, if we have one, is Steve Buscemi’s slowly hardening Khrushchev, who begins as a bundle of nerves but knows how to play the game. His nemesis is the ghoulish Beria, played with grim relish by Simon Russell Beale. Around them orbit the outrageously narcissistic Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Stalin’s incorrigible children Vitaly and Svetlana (Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough) and a superb Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov, who vacillates between deeply affected faith and cheerful rebellion.
The Death of Stalin opens with a tremendous sequence in which a frantic radio director forces a symphony orchestra to re-play its entire performance after a whim from Stalin demands a recording. Paddy Considine’s panicked scuttling sets the mood – fear is the order of the day. The threat of punishment is very real throughout, felt initially by Considine, a rudely awakened conductor and Stalin’s own guards alike; yet the humour is also constant, piquant and painfully sharp. This balance is one which the film can only manage in stretches, and which upon reflection it doesn’t succeed in maintaining enough.
Background visual gags are frequent – bodies bundled down stairs, cleaners shot, guards sharing glances. The most common format involves our characters bickering and squabbling while extras suffer the awful fates their machinations demand. Iannucci mines this vein, but the more he uses it the more sour the taste left behind. The Death of Stalin is not intended as a sober and factual examination of the Soviet Union’s power struggles, but it does feel as though a collective as sharp and intelligent as this film’s creative team could do more.
Simon Russell Beale’s Beria is the picture’s darkest, but not only, proponent of civilian casualties, and it is his sex abuse quasi-sub-plot which sits most uneasily – a misjudgement of tone. In attempting to occasionally remind viewers of the potential horror of civilian life in this era, the portrayal of Beria’s imprisonment and rape of a young woman instead feels ill-considered. He is monstrous regardless, but these short scenes showcase the film’s shortcomings in tonal maturity.
A tremendous crescendo and climax, in which Jason Isaacs’s machismo General Zhukov drives violence into the upper echelons of the cast, sees the film finish strong, and, in a main character’s final moment, successfully channel the duality of comedy and human horror which eludes it elsewhere. A sudden, shocking death, and an uncompromising stare at its aftermath, all the while peppering the audience with one-liners and snarky asides; in many ways it is an encapsulation of the film’s goals, but a superior episode to the enterprise as a whole.