The Death Of Stalin (15)

IT'S not easy to make comedy out of real repression, real terror. There are the egg shells of bad taste to contend with, and political correctness, that irksome inhibitor of inspiration. That said, there are some who just have the knack for making you laugh when you know what you’re watching is no laughing matter.

With his TV shows The Thick Of It and Veep, and the film In The Loop, Armando Iannucci has proven to be no slouch when it comes to political satire. Of course, it’s one thing making fun of the hubris and stupidity of fictional politicians, another when your subject is a real-life dictator who presided over the death of millions of his own people. Yet the perpetrator of the Great Terror apparently holds no fear for the Glaswegian writer-producer-director. This is a boldly and uproariously funny film.

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Iannucci’s focus is not Josef Stalin himself, but the cult of the man, the system of repression that he created, the politburo members who managed to survive him (no mean feat, when trusty sidekicks were frequently executed) and the power struggle that followed their leader’s death.

Moscow, 1953. A classical concert is being performed live for the radio, when the producer (Paddy Considine) gets a phone call that sends him into blind panic. Stalin wants a recording delivered to him as soon as the performance is over. The trouble is, it's not being recorded.

And so, with the producer’s platitude that “nobody’s going to get killed”, musicians and audience replay the concert for their illustrious leader. The scenario would seem outlandish, contrived, were it not for the fact that many more mundane failures to comply were summarily punished – one of the key instruments of terror being its arbitrariness.

It’s ironic, then, that when Stalin is found near-death the next morning, there’s no-one qualified left to help. "All the best doctors are in the gulag, or dead,” declares one of his stooges, who have gathered around the body like vultures. When the dictator is eventually declared dead, the battle to replace him begins.

The key players are Stalin’s preening and dim-witted number two Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), shrewd political animal Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), powerful spymaster Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and the recently out-of-favour Molotov (Michael Palin), handed a last-minute reprieve from execution and back in the fray with a fervour.

While falling over themselves to be the protector of Stalin’s long-suffering daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), these men are aware that it’s time to rein back on her father’s terror. Even Beria. Early scenes have shown him walking his underground cells dispensing death with instructions such as “Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it”, and “Kill him. Dump him in the pulpit”. But, pragmatically, he knows that he must steal the reformer, Khrushchev’s thunder, if he is to survive.

“How can you run and plot at the same time?” Khrushchev is asked. The answer is that he, too, is running for his life. And as these ruthless but desperate men scheme and manoeuvre, the result is racy, consistently hilarious black comedy, with the chill undercurrent of evil.

A superlative cast handle streams of comic banter with gymnastic aplomb. Edging the honours, with very different performances are Beale, who’s actually played Stalin on stage and is phenomenally sinister as Beria, Rupert Friend as Stalin’s mad son Vasily, who wouldn’t be out of place in Blackadder, and Jason Isaacs as famed Second World War general Zhukov, who controls the Red Army and has nothing but disdain for the politicians. “I’m off to represent the entire red army at the buffet,” he tells the politicians. “You girls enjoy yourself.”