MOVIE REVIEW: Absurdly hilarious comedy is a must-see
"GO AND kill them, will you?"
Two soldiers open the doors to the wrong room, accidentally witnessing a coup d'état in action. They apologise and bow out but it's too late. Two guards are sent after them, guns trained on their targets, one shot while cowering behind some furniture. If the sequence wasn't so farcical it would be horrifying.
The Death of Stalin, a political satire of the highest order, revels in the casually brutal power shifts that result in apparatchiks, servants, foot soldiers and citizens killed at a whim depending on whose kill lists are currently operational.
Directed and co-written by Armando Iannucci, the wit extraordinaire behind Veep, The Thick of It, In the Loop and Alan Partridge, The Death of Stalin is signature Iannucci - absurd set-ups leading to even more outrageous ends via the spitefully delicious cadence of his dialogue. And there's more than a touch of the Monty Python spirit here, and not just because Michael Palin is in the cast.
Veep and The Thick of It presented a then-exaggerated version of the ridiculous scenarios and personalities in the corridors of power, though some Washington insiders have, worryingly, said Veep is the political series that most closely resembled reality - and this was before the Trump era.
The Death of Stalin looks to history to harness one of the most nonsensical political moments - the jostling for control after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. The film isn't 100 per cent historically accurate but there's enough truth in it to convey just how bizarre humans hungry for power really are.
When the dictator is found unconscious on the ground of his study one morning, in a puddle of his own piss, his deputies and ministers make a beeline, eager to end up on the throne. A power struggle breaks out between the secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beade) and Moscow party head Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi). Caught in the middle are Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), the weak-willed number two Beria wants to install as a puppet, and Stalin's kids Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend).
As ministers fret about, picking a side and then refusing to pick a side before picking another side, advocating for reform and then trying to uphold Stalin's legacy, more nameless characters are offhandedly dispatched - condemned or saved by the way the political wind is blowing that very second. Machiavelli would either be really proud or really disturbed.
Even though it delights in taking time out for wordplay ("unauthorised narcissism!") and physical comedy, The Death of Stalin moves at a breakneck pace. If it was any longer, it would be bordering on merciless as you try to keep up with every zinger launched across the screen.
But for all of its parodic elements, there's a definite serious edge to the endeavour. Whether it's the irrationality of restaging a live classical concert or Vasily denying the entire Soviet hockey team had died in a plane crash ("What plane crash? There was never a plane crash. Soviet planes don't crash."), the thing that underlies all the tomfoolery is fear.
Anxiety across the realm is dialled up to maximum and that instability and disregard for the citizenry is exactly why The Death of Stalin has been banned in Russia and a few other former Soviet countries.
And that's what great satire does, it reflects back to you the laughable and sometimes ludicrously cruel aspects of society in a way that challenges you to recognise your own culpability in such a system. The more uncomfortably familiar it is, the more effective its humour is. Obviously, Vladimir Putin isn't keen on that kind of thing.
The Death of Stalin is in cinemas now.
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