The Death of Stalin

Humor's knife cuts deepest, and this coal-black comedy about Joseph Stalin's 1953 demise paints an absurd – and absurdly accurate – picture of Soviet bootlicking and backstabbing. It's hilarious, until it's not.

Writer/director Iannucci, the Glaswegian TV mogul best known for his BBC series The Thick of It and his HBO series Veep, returns to the big screen for the first film since 2009's In the Loop. The setting has changed, but he's still soundly in his wheelhouse. If ruthless, vulgar political satire turns you off, then The Death of Stalin is not for you.

Interestingly, the script was actually adapted from a series of French comic books. Condensing nine months of turmoil, but faithfully recounting most key events, The Death of Stalin unfolds over just a couple of days, as the Soviet Central Committee squabbles over what to do following the unexpected death of the USSR's brutally oppressive dictator. Every man spots countless new opportunities for the nation and for himself.

Given Iannucci's talky, low-budget TV background, I was expecting a stagier film. Iannucci knows his way around a camera, though, and Stalin looks cinematic enough to warrant a theatrical release. That said, it is very talky. Every line of dialogue is razor-sharp, but over an hour and a half, the manic patter becomes exhausting. Iannucci's pacing is perhaps more easily digestible in 30-minute episodes.

I had seen this film immediately after Red Sparrow, and was tickled by one contrast: whereas the mostly non-Russian cast of Red Sparrow affects Russian accents, this film's ensemble – mostly Brits, including Michael Palin, and two yanks, Jeffrey Tambor and Steve Buscemi – all speak in their native dialects. Ironically, this rings much truer. It gives you a more direct sense of the ineptitude and self-preservation of the Central Committee and of Russian politicians in general. (It's no surprise that Putin has banned the film.) Standout performances come from a manic Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev and a pitch-perfect Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria, the head of the NKVD secret police, as their characters jockey for control over post-Stalin Russia. Guess who wins.