Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Carry on Kremlin; Thick of It Creator Armando Iannucci Is One of the Greatest Satirists of His Generation but Can His New Dark Farce about the Soviet Scramble for Power in 1953 Live Up to Expectation?

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Carry on Kremlin; Thick of It Creator Armando Iannucci Is One of the Greatest Satirists of His Generation but Can His New Dark Farce about the Soviet Scramble for Power in 1953 Live Up to Expectation?

Article excerpt

Byline: THE DEATH OF STALIN Cert 15, 106 mins Matthew Norman

IN THAT old equation "comedy equals tragedy plus time", the comic and tragic are constants and the variable is time. How long must elapse before it becomes acceptable to laugh at unspeakable cruelty? Caligula's penchant for using senators as human torches to light garden parties didn't cause a run on ribcage repair kits in ancient Rome but at some point over the next two millennia it acquired a certain gruesome hilarity.

Joseph Stalin died in 1953 having ruled the Soviet Union with staggering ruthlessness for three decades, in which he transformed an agrarian society into an industrialised superpower and killed and caused to die, through bullet and famine, comrades literally beyond counting.

The estimates range up from 20 million.

In his native Georgia, and among the more nationalistic strata of Russian society, he is the hero of heroes. For many others he ranks alongside Hitler in the pantheon of tyrannical monsters.

But one thing Stalin has never been, until now, is a slightly fey, senescent Kray-style hood. This is how director and co-writer Armando Iannucci presents him in The Death of Stalin. "You wanna know what f***ing broken is?" he menaces quivering associates in his "Beffnal Green" brogue. "You wanna go there?" A stroke leaves the dictator comatose and unattended on his dacha sitting room floor -- even then his guards are too scared of him to intervene, while he has dispatched every decent doctor in Moscow to the gulag.

Whether or not 64 years are too few to transform the tragic into the comic, Iannucci isn't trying to wring laughs out of suffering. As in The Thick of It and Veep, he is satirising the venality and rank incompetence of the powerhungry, the self-serving hypocrisies beneath their glib political philosophising, and the chaos in which they operate.

My problem -- and worshipping Iannucci as a demigod, these words don't come easily -- is not with time but with the comedy. For all his dreamteam cast and assured direction, despite capturing the laughable sycophancy of the apparatchik the film isn't that funny.

It begins adroitly by establishing the paralysing fear and latent absurdities generated by Stalin with laconic ease. When the music-loving dictator requests a record of a Mozart concerto he has heard on the radio the broadcast's director (Paddy Considine) is mortified to discover that it wasn't recorded. He rounds up the departing orchestra for a repeat and sends secret police to collect a replacement conductor for the one now missing but needs another full house to replicate the sound quality. "I could get my wife," a colleague tells him. "She'd dampen the acoustic," he replies.

Although it made me laugh, that twist on the marginally retrograde "My wife's so fat" proved a signpost to the unexpected broadness of Iannucci's script. …

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