The Death of Stalin: Film Review
Cast: Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Adrian McLoughlin, Jason Isaacs, Paddy Considine, Olga Kurylenko, Paul Whitehouse
Director: Armando Iannucci
Based on the graphic novel of the same name, Veep and The Thick Of It writer Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin is very much of the ilk of the TV series you'll be familiar with.
With Stalin's dictatorship in full force with hitlists being undertaken, fear rules Moscow in 1953.
No more so than in the echelons of power and the cabal that surrounds Stalin himself, thanks to his push of the Great Terror.
But when Stalin collapses and dies after receiving a recording of a symphony, the power vacuum that opens up sees years of fear and repression bubble over as his deputy Malenkov (Transparent former star Tambor) readies himself to take over.
However, he's not alone with NKVD head Beria (Beale) and Nikita Khruschev (Buscemi) scheming for the top job.
There's a level of absurdity obvious from the start in The Death of Stalin - and one which will feel very familiar to anyone who's sat through any of Iannucci's other satires, as those with inflated senses of power try to manipulate the deck chairs to their own benefit, and end up being hoist on their own petard.
However, as the madness and meanness grows in The Death of Stalin, Iannucci makes it difficult to empathise with any of those on screen, as the argument over which regime is better to follow comes to the fore. Which is no bad thing, as tragedy mixes along with some darkness.
At some point in The Death of Stalin, the jokes, such as they are, run dry and what you're left with is the horrible realisation that all of these people are monsters, desperate and determined to vault over each other via the knives recently supplanted in others' backs.
Farce takes place amid the backdrop of people being shot in the head, children raped - it all leaves a tartly depressing taste in your mouth.
This is gallows humour where actual gallows are more likely to be employed throughout, leading to a feeling of bleakness among the mirth, and one which at times, threatens to overwhelm the screen and your gut reaction to it.
Threaded through are the kind of intellectual superiority games which swirled in Yes Minister and the incessant political squawking and squabbling that Iannucci employs in The Thick of It, with Beale feeling very much like the manipulative Malcolm Tuicker in a historical role.
Allowing the actors to use their own accents and playing skewed versions of their characters (Isaacs in particular appears to have a ball playing Zhukov as a northern rough and tumble thug via a Sean Bean prism) proves to give the film a humanity that it needs.
It's not as gut-bustingly laugh-out-loud funny as you'd expect, but the underplaying covers the whole thing in a leering menace that's hard to shake.
Iannucci delights in the fleeting moments such as when a son is reunited with the father he sold to their authorities or the throwaway moment when conductor says you won't get shot but his uncertainty in his face tells more than it ever could.
Simon Russell Beale is particularly venal as Beria, and the darkness that he displays is as sickening in parts as the humour will allow and that the quick rapid-fire dialogue will give pace to. His is the character to watch from beginning to end, and it's to his credit that his ultimate end feels as discordant and unsettling as ever you'd feel for a monster.
The Death of Stalin is not exactly an omnishambles in any stretch of the imagination.
It is, instead, darkly sickening viewing as the life goes out of the political vacuum which emerges - its satire is a little more scattershot and harder to find among the bleakness, but Iannucci is to be complimented for the intelligent edges he's brought to the visualisation of the film - rather than allowing the farce to make light of the true terrors which blighted Russia.