TIFF Review: Beautifully dark comedy ‘The Death of Stalin’ is full of creative vitriol

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In his new film The Death of Stalin, Armando Iannucci bravely asks a poignant question: What if the aborted BBC Hitler sitcom Heil, Honey! I’m Home! could have been good?

That’s not to suggest that you’ll find any jokes about domestic life buried amongst the power struggles of Soviet premiers after the death of Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, but you will see a great deal of similarities to Iannucci’s previous work on The Thick of It and Veep reflected through the blackened lens of history. It’s a beautifully dark comedy, full of creative vitriol and base intrigue from all parties involved in committee politics, and one that feels particularly Russian in its tone and temperament (I highly recommend you check out Fuel Publishing’s Soviets as an in-depth example of the type of gallows humor that I’m talking about). But Iannucci’s dramatic talents propel it into much more uncertain territory than previously seen in his work, and his cringe comedy stylings are given a particular weight to them.

After a night of drinking and partying with his “cabinet,” Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) listens to some Mozart (a recording hastily assembled by a nervous radio man, [Paddy Considine] after he realizes he hasn’t recorded the performance he was broadcasting), reads a seditious note (from the featured pianist [Olga Kurylenko] of the piece), and collapses to the floor, pissing himself. The next morning, he’s discovered by a maid, and the Party committee assembles. Each has their eyes on the prize: Chief amongst them are his deputy (a fantastically wigged Jeffrey Tambor), his sadistic security head Beria (Simon Russell Beale) whose NKVD secret police are terrorizing the country, a grubby reformer named Khruschev (a fantastic Steve Buscemi) and his foreign minister (Michael Palin), who was marked for death at the hands of the state security forces before Stalin’s death. Beria begins to make moves to consolidate his power, which bodes poorly for the future of the country, and Kruschev schemes to undermine him. That is, if they can control Stalin’s children (Andrea Riseborough and a wonderful Rupert Friend) from messing everything up. Instead of House of Cards-style political machinations, what follows is a series of awkward misunderstandings and betrayals, each accompanied by brilliantly witty dialogue.

Iannucci goes out of his way to portray these people as they were, at least, and he particularly has a talent for teasing out solid and semi-unbelieveable details about these figures and making them either deftly funny or genuinely telling. He shows us Buscemi’s weaselly qualities early on — he forces his wife to write down all of his jokes and their reception at the hands of Stalin “so that [he] knows what he’s dealing with in the morning.” Likewise, he shows us the depth of Beria’s cruelty with a light and sensible touch, knowing that the true darkness there would overwhelm the movie’s humor and leave it smoking in a silent, empty theater. But it’s still there, and a subtly effective message; that the goofs whom we see in his work in positions of power can have drastic consequences for the people within their world. It’s a fascinating way for Iannucci to explore their egos and ids and mine them for laughs, but while continuously reminding the viewer how horrible things really are. You see glimpses of this drama in the margins — a son tells the NKVD where his father is, and later on in the film, that father returns home from the gulag, glaring at his son. It’s only a few seconds of screentime, but it goes so far in showing how wide these effects are- something that I always found missing from Veep.

But it’d all be for nothing if Iannucci hadn’t cast the film right, and even characters stuffed to the margins get the chance to have a deep effect; chief amongst them being Jason Isaacs, here playing the deputy defense minister Zhukov, who’s an imposing and fascinating man-of-action masculinist. He’s on a different level than perhaps everyone in the ensemble, except for Buscemi, with whom he shares most of his scenes. He’s utterly hilarious here, playing off his cocksure villain persona in a jockish and glorious way (at one point he fakes out Buscemi and tells him how he’s going to report him for treason until he drops the act mid-sentence) and God only knows how much I want to see him do more work in comedy.

There’ll be plenty more to write about once this movie nears its release, but for those wondering if Iannucci could even come close to topping his prior film, In the Loop, rest easy: He’s crafted a dark and complicated comedy that easily holds its own with the best of his work.

Image courtesy of TIFF. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus, and recap all our TIFF 2017 coverage here.