In the works of Armando Iannucci, nobody in charge has any idea what they’re doing. People responsible for the welfare of millions, but only concerned with their own, mess up repeatedly and pass the blame around like a time bomb, hoping it goes off in somebody else’s face rather than their own. The Thick Of It boggled at the absolute disaster of UK politicians. Veep did the same with America. The Death Of Stalin moves him on to Russia and also does something Iannucci has never done before: depict real people.
‘Real’ is used in a loose sense. The names belong to people who actually existed, but their depictions are probably not very accurate. In Iannucci’s version of events, Stalin is a tiny, foul-mouthed cockney and the men around him have accents that travel the globe from Brooklyn to Burnley. Set in the Soviet Union in 1953, in the final days of the fearsome dictator, The Death Of Stalin makes a dark farce of the fight to fill the power vacuum left by Stalin. It’s rich ground for Iannucci because the level of paranoia under Stalin’s rule was so high that everybody feared they were being watched at all times and could at any moment be marked for murder. Paranoid people do ridiculous things and someone with Iannucci’s talents can turn that into belly-laugh comedy.
The line he’s walking is so delicate. His backdrop is a country experiencing immense suffering and his characters are doing monstrous things – we see prisoners shoved down stairs and women kidnapped for sex slavery – but it works because the jokes are always at the expense of the men in power. He’s assembled an exceptional cast – Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Paddy Considine, Steve Buscemi, Jason Isaacs, Simon Russell Beale – to play silly boys bickering over a prize that won’t last long for whoever gets it. There is, of course, majestically creative swearing and absolutely killer putdowns, delivered by people who know how to play the situation rather than the joke. It’s as mind-bendingly clever as it is completely silly.