After the outcome of a certain leadership election in the past year, it seems political satire might become more prevalent. Whilst we’re still waiting for a feature-length Trump biopic (or in all probability, a parody), famed Scottish screenwriter Armando Iannucci has documented the state of the Soviet Union in the wake of Joseph Stalin’s death, gleefully satirising the hierarchy in the same vein as his work on both British (The Thick of It) and American (Veep) television.
Inhabitants of Moscow in 1953 lived a shackled existence, with the shadow of arrest and execution looming large – in the opening scene, a concert-hall attendant, Andreyev (Paddy Considine), is tasked with producing a recording of an already performed opera for the nation’s leader. Frantically grabbing people off the street to simulate the live acoustics, he attempts to reassure spectators by saying that “nobody is going to be killed”, knowing full well that he’ll succumb to that fate if he doesn’t follow orders.
Blending idiocy (“did he say five or hive?”) with elements of farce, the scene successfully conveys the oppressive state of the country – the only people who possess any modicum of linguistic freedom are members of Stalin’s cabinet, being a smorgasbord of villainy and treachery. Just about every undesirable trait is present, ranging from vanity (Jeffrey Tambor’s Malenkov is more concerned with his own appearance than politics) to blinded conformity (Michael Palin’s Molotov dabbles with the idea of revolt but is too cowardly to commit to it).
Following the titular event, Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Beria (Simon Russell Beale) attempt to outdo each other with the aim of using Malenkov as a puppet, with the former being a tad more sympathetic and open-minded. The latter is the nastiest of a bad bunch, a conniving weasel who manipulates those around him like they’re pieces on a chess board, as well as raping and murdering an immeasurable number of Russians for his own political gain. He and Khrushchev regularly clash, particularly in their attempts to get in the good books of Stalin’s children, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend), a character whose reliance on alcohol renders him borderline psychotic. Picking a fight with almost anyone, he’s the embodiment of the farcical quality of the film – if he’s not accidentally spitting on himself then he’s trying to steal an officer’s gun.
Thankfully, there isn’t a Russian accent to be heard, allowing for some hilariously blunt vocal delivery – Jason Isaacs in particular uses this to his advantage, portraying General Zhukov as a foul-mouthed Yorkshireman. He’s merely one cog in a conveyor belt of supporting characters, coming and going like they’re part of an Aaron Sorkin script. The rapid-fire delivery and presence of acerbic wit are obvious comparison points, but there is a sense of buffoonery here, with the frenetic camera movements making some sequences play like a pantomime.
A surprising shift in tone does prevent the film from becoming too one-note, but the biting humour is still present in even its bleakest scenes, confidently highlighting the barbarity of the era. At one point, with Stalin lying on the floor covered in his own urine, Paul Whitehouse’s Mikoyan suggests they call a doctor, only to be told that “all of the good ones have been sent to the Gulag” – it’s hard to think of a more fitting summation of the events in The Death of Stalin and post-war Soviet Union in general.