As the madness grows in ‘The Death of Stalin’, director Armando Iannucci makes it difficult to empathise with any of the characters

Based on the graphic novel of the same name, Veep and The Thick Of It writer Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is very much of the ilk of the TV series you’ll be familiar with.

With Stalin’s dictatorship in full force, fear rules Moscow.

No more so than in the echelons of power and the cabal that surrounds Stalin himself.

But when the Soviet leader collapses and dies after receiving a recording of a symphony, the power vacuum that opens up sees years of repression bubble over as his deputy Malenkov (Transparent former star Jeffrey Tambor) readies himself to take over.

However, he’s not alone with NKVD head Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and Nikita Khruschev (Steve Buscemi) scheming for the top job.

There’s a level of absurdity obvious in this film from the start – no doubt familiar to anyone who’s sat through any of Iannucci’s other satires, as those with inflated senses of power try to manipulate the deck chairs to their own benefit and end up being hoist on their own petard.

However, as the madness grows in The Death of Stalin, Iannucci makes it difficult to empathise with anyone on screen as the argument over the better regime comes to the fore.

At some point, the jokes, such as they are, run dry and what you’re left with is the horrible realisation that all of these people are monsters – determined to vault over each other via the knives recently supplanted in one others’ backs.

Farce unfolds against the backdrop of extreme violence, with gallows humour doing little to alleviate the tartly depressing taste in your mouth. 

Threaded through is the kind of intellectual superiority games which swirled in Yes Minister and the incessant political squawking and squabbling that Iannucci employs in The Thick of It, with Beale feeling very much like the manipulative Malcolm Tuicker in a historical role.

Allowing the actors to use their own accents and playing skewed versions of their characters (Jason Isaacs in particular appears to have a ball playing Zhukov as a northern rough-and-tumble thug) gives the film a necessary humanity.

It’s not as gut-bustingly laugh-out-loud funny as you’d expect, but the underplaying covers the whole thing in a leering menace that’s hard to shake.

Beale is particularly venal as Beria, and the darkness that he displays is as sickening in parts as the humour will allow. His is the character to watch from beginning to end, and it’s to his credit that his ultimate end feels as unsettling as you’d ever feel for a monster.

The Death of Stalin is not exactly an omnishambles in any stretch of the imagination.

Iannucci is to be complimented for the intelligent edges he’s brought to the visualisation of the film rather than making light of the true terrors that blighted Russia.

The Death of Stalin

Cast: Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Adrian McLoughlin, Jason Isaacs, Paddy Considine, Olga Kurylenko, Paul Whitehouse

Director: Armando Iannucci

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