Rating: 4/5

Dir: Armando Iannucci

With: Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough

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Runtime: 107 minutes

IF comedies were rated according to the savagery of their wit, Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin would be a stone cold 18 certificate, a Halloween of historical drama.

This is satire as exorcism and autopsy, no blushes spared. Such bleakness could have been unbearable, if not for the saving grace that this is also a blisteringly funny picture, with the creator of The Thick of It and Veep extracting plenty of laughs from the chaos that followed the old red devil’s passing. To watch The Death of Stalin is to understand why all concerned should not be planning holidays in Russia any time soon.

As Iannucci opens his tale, the Soviet premier is alive and well. He has been listening to a radio broadcast of a Moscow concert, enjoying it so much he demands a recording. But no tape was made and the concert is over. What else is there to do but to stop the musicians and audience from leaving, and play the whole thing again?

Such insanity is nothing compared to what is unleashed after Stalin is discovered on the floor of his office. Who will replace him? The party has set down the succession procedure in detail, but as with everything in the Soviet Union the theory bears no relation to reality. So the fight among the henchmen begins, and yes, there will be blood. The question is, whose?

The grisly gang is all here, from wily outlier Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi in all his wheedling magnificence) and Stalin’s deputy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) to the bone-chilling secret police chief Beria (Simon Russell Beale), and keeper of the flame Molotov (Michael Palin).

With the possible exception of Molotov, every one of them is a scoundrel, with Beria the biggest of them all. The screenplay by Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin (in turn based on the comic book by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin) does not hesitate to lay bare the depths of Beria’s depravity, whether it is designing executions (“Shoot her before him but make sure he sees it”) or his other heinous acts.

Also joining the fray around the funeral are Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and her crazed brother Vasily (Rupert Friend). Just when it seems no more wolves can join the pack, up rocks Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs). Watch out, too, for Iannucci’s son playing one of the doctors brought in to certify Stalin’s death.

Each actor is left to interpret their character as they wish. No dodgy Russian accents required here. Stalin sounds like a Cockney spiv. Buscemi and Tambor remain Americans, Palin is British, while Isaacs plays Zhukov as a blunt Yorkshireman who makes Flashman look like an Avon Lady.

As the men plot, Riseborough’s Svetlana broadcasts her misery and uncertainty over her fate loud and clear. “I may as well shoot myself like mother,” she wails, seeking a protector wherever she can find one.

The comedy, likewise, follows no particular brief. Savvy political barbs sit cheek by jowl with playground name-calling and toilet gags; the slapstick is as carefully choreographed as the verbal set pieces; and the humour overall is a spicy blend of British, American and Russian.

While the budget looks Iannucci’s biggest to date, there are no Reds-style crowd scenes as the funeral plays out, which is something of a pity.

What his picture lacks in spectacle, however, it makes up in detail, with the drabness of the times captured perfectly in a palette of icy blues and funereal greys, while the original score by Christopher Willis (Veep) keeps pace with the lightning switches between low farce and high tragedy. Helping to power the picture along is the sheer, near demonic glee with which a terrific cast go about their business. They are like a tag team of talent, each one bidding to outdo the next, which makes it difficult to choose stand-out performances.

Let us call it a tie between Buscemi, Tambor and Russell Beale, and the awards juries can fight it out among themselves.

Ultimately, though, this is Iannucci’s picture, a piece that is as academically sound as it is Marx brothers anarchic. This is what years of Stakhanovite-like dedication at the coalface of political satire can bring a writer. Comrade, we salute you.