It’s 1953, Stalin has just died and it’s up to his calamitous cronies to work out who’s going to take over. Faced with the prospect of being shot as traitors, they plot, panic and plunder in trying to find a consensus in the shadow of the death of their leader. Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It, Alan Partridge) directs a superb ensemble cast round the chambers of a Kremlin crumbling into chaos.
Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev is more of a Brooklyn hardman gangster than a politician while Paul Whitehouse is hilarious as a matter-of-fact Russian Yorkshireman. The result of this set up is a motley set of characters with all the stereotypical regional mannerisms, while - to this film’s praise - never falling into pantomime. Indeed, on closer inspection, the plot is more historically accurate than its getting credit for.
It is absurd, then, that the Russian culture secretary has called for the film to be banned. Perhaps it is the similarities between an increasingly autocratic Russia under Putin that hit a sensitive nerve. Perhaps they are embarrassed that Russian leaders probably were just as rumbustious – although not quite as funny – as Jason Issacs, who plays a Field Marshall Georgy Zhukov with a steely northern accent.
You’d have to be a genius to get a laugh out of one of the darkest chapters in human history; Armando Iannucci is exactly that.
This is black comedy at its darkest, the kind of comedy that reminds us that we’ve not got it too bad right now. We can slate the establishment to our hearts desire, while here a stutter will land you a life in an icy Siberian outpost. The Death of Stalin is bleak and brave, but it pulls it off and, for my money, it’s the film of the year.