The Death of Stalin

Poster for The Death of Stalin

A specialist in black humour whose television and film work includes the scathing political satires The Thick of It, Veep, and the Oscar-nominated In the Loop, Armando Iannucci is in his element with this acerbic send-up of the Soviet Supremo and his band of scheming bootlicks. Deploying a wide range of English-speaking actors with an assortment of accents—Cockney, Brooklyn, Liverpool—Iannucci sends a not-so-subtle message that Stalin and his inner circle were a bunch of arrivistes who wound up at the helm of a Cold War superpower.

The year is 1953. Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) seems in hale (albeit paranoid) condition, terrorizing everyone, summarily killing off any suspected dissenters, and keeping even his cronies on edge. That comes to an abrupt halt one morning when the dictator is found belly-up on the floor of his office following a stroke. What follows is Iannucci’s version of hijinks: the plotting and jostling for power by a group of connivers who cowered under their boss. All of the top lackeys are in contention—milquetoast Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), wiseguy Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi, Norman), bewildered Molotov (Michael Palin), thuggish Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), and depraved Beria (Simon Russell Beale, My Week with Marilyn), with Stalin’s drunken son Vasily (Rupert Friend; The Young Victoria, Chéri) and jaded daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough; Birdman, Made in Dagenham) off to the side. They move with the clumsiness of aspirants not up to the job but desperate for it anyway.

Within the burlesque of The Death of Stalin is a timely allegory about venal, unfit leaders and corrupt governance—the kind of comedy that is Iannucci’s specialty. It is not hard to imagine similar, if less bloody, events unfolding in a different capital today.

“Ianucci’s brand of political satire is applied to one of the darkest chapters in modern history, with sensational results. The Lives Of Others with laughs, it’s farcical, frightening and a timely reminder that things could always be worse.” (Nick de Semlyen, Empire)

“Like Orwell on helium, this reimaging of Stalin’s demise and the subsequent ideological gymnastics of his scheming acolytes is daring, quick-fire and appallingly funny.” (Phil de Semlyen, Time Out London)

“The Death of Stalin is superbly cast, and acted with icy and ruthless force by an A-list lineup. There are no weak links. Each has a plum role; each squeezes every gorgeous horrible drop.” (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian)