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The Death of Stalin, film review: ‘Genuinely funny, a wild mixture of people who have no place being in a film together’

PUBLISHED: 11:27 12 October 2017 | UPDATED: 11:51 12 October 2017

The Death of Stalin, starring Jason Isaacs, Simon Russell Beale, Paul Whitehouse, Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin and Jeffrey Tambor. Picture: Nicola Dove

The Death of Stalin, starring Jason Isaacs, Simon Russell Beale, Paul Whitehouse, Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin and Jeffrey Tambor. Picture: Nicola Dove

Nicola Dove

Armando Iannucci’s black comedy stars Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Palin and Rupert Friend...speaking in absurdly different accents

Hard as it is to believe now, there was a time when making a black comedy about Stalin’s tyrannical rule and The Great Terror, would’ve have been considered to be in questionable taste.

In 1983, the fledgling Channel 4 was criticised for trivialising it in Red Monarch, a dark farce about Stalin’s reign. These days of course, ghoulish black comedy is our default setting; the way we get through the day.

Armando Iannucci’s sweary political satire, The Thick Of It, is like one of those game show formats that is franchised off all over the world. Iannucci oversaw the American version, Veep, but every nation could have one. Now he has moved it into the realms of costume drama with this version of Stalin’s final day and the squabble for power afterward between Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and the head of NKVD secret police Beria (Simon Russell Beale).

Retrofitting it to the USSR has required some tinkering with the formula. The absurdities are pushed a bit further. While previous Iannucci’s satires went on inside Westminster/ Washington bubbles, here the brutal consequences – executions, round ups, rapes - happen on screen. As soon as the main players have moved off screen, armed forces will sweep in to massacre the extras.

The film is genuinely funny and casually chilling. The cast is a wild mixture of people who have no place being in a film together, and the film plays on the absurdity of this collection by having them play their roles in a variety of accents.

The movie cements Iannucci’s position as the foremost satirist of his age, though I wonder perhaps what we have gained from his work. His portrait of our insular politic classes as shallow, lazy and completely removed from reality only seems to have given them license to be shallower, lazier and even more removed from reality.

Similarly, history tells us showing up tyrants as buffoons doesn’t put the slightest dent in their appeal. Indeed, clown face is how all fascism now presents itself, coming at us with clown hair, clown bluster and clown childrens’ names.

halfmanhalfcritic.com the blu-ray release of John Carpenter’s The Thing and the re-release of North By Northwest.

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