Comedy has a proud history of taking tragedy and turning it into sweet comedy gold. I’m thinking of Monty Python’s take on the crucifixion, I’m thinking Blackadder Goes Forth, and probably a great many others. The Death of Stalin follows this tradition of providing a comedic take on the very bleakest of subject matter. It is perhaps in acknowledgement of this tradition that director Armando Iannucci brings seasoned Python star Michael Palin along for the ride.
The Death of Stalin plot wise does very much what it says on the tin, it begins shortly before Stalin’s death and it ends slightly after Stalin’s funeral. It is quite a contained piece of cinema, which follows the intrigue and rivalries amongst Stalin’s successors following the dictator’s death.
The story is told with an easy sophistication, as the Central Committee react to their leader’s death with scheming and suspicion. Lavrentiy Beria, the head of Stalin’s secret service, seems to steal the jump on his rivals by swiftly forming machinations to overcome his rivals, while the bulk of the narrative falls on the unlikely Nikita Khrushchev.
Armando Iannucci does not shrink from the horror and desperation of Stalin’s Russia. Its murder and brutality are never long from the screen. While intended as a comedy, the film is never able to escape the abject misery of its period. At times, particularly during the rounding up on retired doctors, who have escaped the gulags, in order to treat the dying Stalin, the film takes on a kind of bleak irony.
Michael Palin makes a bold attempt at comedy, playing a civil servant so downtrodden and brainwashed by the propaganda of Stalinism that he seems incapable of recognising his own best interests. While his character recalls something of the proud tradition of Python, the film’s bleakness makes the performance poignant rather than comedic.
The funniest performance comes in the form of Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov, played by Jason Isaacs. Georgy arrives late in the day, but Jason Isaacs’s performance is so wildly overblown, as the highly decorated head of the Russian army with an broad Yorkshire accent, that he’s one man show illustrates just how much funnier the film could have been.
The Death of Stalin isn’t a bad film. It is quite an intriguing depiction of the events surrounding Stalin’s death. It’s just that as a comedy, it doesn’t function. It doesn’t function, because while the comedy is quite nuanced, in much the same way as Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It, the misery beats you about the head with a stick. The nuance and irony works far more effectively when set against harassed MPs and the UK media, rather than gulags and death squads. The Death of Stalin made me think, it just didn’t make me laugh and, for a comedy, I guess that’s a bad thing.