The latest comedy from creator of The Thick of It, Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, is a delightfully satirical take on the last days of Comrade Stalin, and the men waiting in the wings to take his place as head of the Soviet Union.  

It’s been almost 65 years since Stalin died in 1953, and his death is still, rightly or wrongly, a sore spot for some. It’s no surprise that when Armando Iannucci’s latest comedy The Death of Stalin was first heard of overseas, it garnered little favour amongst the officials in whose place he once stood. The film has been labelled a nefarious attempt to stir up instability within Russia by its the country’s culture ministry, and a ban will surely follow.

Thank god for the sixties, That Was The Week That Was, and Spitting Image. Without the decade we mightn’t have had Have I Got News For You, Private Eye and Iannucci’s incomparable political fly-on-the-wall comedy, The Thick of It. The sixties cultivated a very British attitude to power and how we see it, and Iannucci is a stalwart example of the school of satire. For his latest venture is, in essence, The Thick of It…in Russia…in 1953.

Based on the French graphic novel, La mort de Staline, the film follows the days following the sudden death of the Soviet leader, which left his Central Committee at the centre of a power struggle.

Amongst those in contention are the weak and feeble Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), who took Stalin’s place briefly following his demise, Molotov (Michael Palin), who seems at home with Iannucci’s script, Beria (Simon Russell Beale), and future leader Nikita Khrushchev (the enigmatic Steve Buscemi).

Whilst the Central Committee scrabble amongst one another to plot, coo and stab each other in the back, the actors are left perilously at risk of being party to the idiom of too many cooks. Yet Iannucci gets round this by giving his actors space to breathe; each with his own distinctive accent and idiosyncrasies.

Given the characterful portrayal of Stalin’s Round table, it’s perhaps a surprise that Rupert Friend’s delightfully dishevelled Vasily Stalin makes for a show stealing intervention into the narrative. Carrying most of the extended laughs of the film as Stalin’s alcoholic offspring, his good looks and daddy issues are a delight to watch as he stumbles around from place to place. Andrea Riseborough as his sister, Svetlana, is equally sublime as the somewhat morbid daughter of the departed comrade.

Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev in The Death of Stalin. Photo: Entertainment One Films/ Gaumont

Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev in The Death of Stalin. Photo: Entertainment One Films/ Gaumont

Yet no-one quite comes close to the enigmatic Jason Isaacs as Zhukov, head of the army, whose Yorkshire accent and scarred face combine to cut a figure that’s difficult to ignore. His slow motion entree is one of the most comically timed introductions of the film, alongside the introduction of ‘the bishops’.

Jason Isaacs as Georgy Zhukov. Photo: Entertainment One Films/ Gaumont

Jason Isaacs as Georgy Zhukov. Photo: Entertainment One Films/ Gaumont

Iannucci’s script is beautifully acted out to the backdrop of almost Wes Anderson-esque sets that depict the solemn, heavy architecture of Soviet Russia. The one exception to its brilliance is the abandonment of the nicely carved out chapters, split by Stalin’s instructions on the course of action to take following his death, which seem to have been abandoned half way through.

It’s a hard task to make a film about a dictator without descending into stereotypes and pure idiocy (cue Sascha Baron Cohen), and Iannucci does it with aplomb. In his perfectly timed and cleverly thought out script there’s a fine tuned satire that’s unequaled by others, and an ability to make death, murder and ruthless pursuit of power seem inconsequential. However, that each of Stalin’s sycophantic team are hilariously busy watching their backs, snitching on each other and making sure they don’t offend their dead ruler, doesn’t detract from the fact that the much of the story, if tweaked, is more or less true.

Michael Palin, Paddy Considine, Jeffrey Tambor and Rupert Friend also star in the film alongside Andrea Riseborough. Photo: Entertainment One Films/ Gaumont

Michael Palin, Paddy Considine, Jeffrey Tambor and Rupert Friend also star in the film alongside Andrea Riseborough. Photo: Entertainment One Films/ Gaumont

Like The Thick of It, Iannucci triumphs in moments of chaos and his ability to ridicule and satirise the very top echelons of power is second to none. The only disappointment with The Death of Stalin is that it didn’t last longer.

★★★★★

The Death of Stalin is released in cinemas today.