When Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was discovered face down, stinking of his own urine at his dacha in March 1953 his faithful friends and committee members didn’t immediately send for a doctor as all the prominent ones were in gulags or had been shot. He had lain undisturbed for some time as his guards were afraid that if they disturbed him after a bout of heavy drinking, he would have them killed. It is just this atmosphere of farce, fear and black comedy that drives the funniest film I have seen in years.
That’s not to say it’s a broad comic romp as that would be a far more lightweight affair – it’s the fact it touches on sadistic executions, torture, child rape, bloody violence and horror whilst still delivering brilliantly funny line after line that demonstrates what a masterful writer / director Armando Iannucci is. The source material of a French graphic novel demonstrates the paranoia and true life absurdity that was Russian society during the fag end of Stalin’s rule.
The cast I simply stunning that it’s hard not just to list their names but Simon Russell Beale pulls very few punches as Beria, Stalin’s chief executioner drawing up lists of those to die for no more reason than because, as Khrushchev later advises, ‘their story doesn’t fit with the party line’. He embodies the banality of evil so perfectly, playing it dead straight leaving the rest to crack wise around him. I don’t think I would be likely to see Paul Whitehouse go toe-to-toe exchanging insults with Steve Buscemi on the big screen but he’s just one of these great comic actors that zing lines at each other like pros.
Buscemi captures the careful scheming of Khrushchev as he returns for a boozy night with Stalin and the committee and dictates the events to his wife to record what Stalin liked or disapproved of so he could tailor his future behaviour accordingly. Jeffrey Tambor as the heir apparent , a bumbling vain figure of fun akin to Tambor’s genius creation, Hank Kingsley from Larry Sanders is contrasted by Michael Palin’s quiet brilliance as Molotov. A scene where he outlines what Stalin would or wouldn’t have done as his comrades try and figure which way they should vote amongst one of the best things he has ever done.
Smaller parts by Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend and Andrea Risborough as Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, the oasis of sanity and perception throughout are wonderfully realised with the decision to let the actors use their own accents a shrewd one. Firstly because it doesn’t get in the way of the comic dialogue and also because Stalin’s own court was full of different accents so it really doesn’t take anything away. The film isn’t trying to be a faithful recreation despite being based on actual events, however bizarre the situations may seem.
Despite the embarrassment of rich comic and acting chops on display, Jason Isaacs as a Yorkshire war hero General Zuchkov steals scenes in the same way Rik Mayall did on Blackadder by storming in, unworried about who he offends, ignoring the political chess the rest are playing and cusses up the place with relish. The film flips from flat out farce to genuinely unsettling horror so quickly that it often shocks but never seems to jar with an audience.
You may need a certain kind of jet black gallows humour to get the most out of the film along with a little foreknowledge of the cast of characters but only a true dullard (and predictably they have) would baulk treating a terrible period of history in such a skilfully funny and oddly educating way. The trailer does make it look a bit ‘Carry On Comrades but it’s more intelligent, thoughtful and funny than that.