‘The Death Of Stalin’ has laughs, but its satire falls short

Compared to other political satires, 'The Death of Stalin' has trouble leaving the drawing room.

The Death of Stalin
Directed by Armando Iannucci
Written by Armando Iannucci & David Schneider
In cinemas now

Despite his great CV, Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin doesn’t quite reach its satirical pretensions.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a great fan. His television collaborations with Steve Coogan are magical. Their most recent film together, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, is a gem. His creation about the US presidency, Veep, is up there among one of the best sitcoms ever — aided by a stunning ensemble with spot-on writing.

But The Death of Stalin suffers from the same strain as Iannucci’s sitcom The Thick of It and the film spin-off In the Loop. Mayhem isn’t farce. Comedy isn’t satire.

To hit the markers, it needs team work and the cast of Stalin pull in different directions. Simon Russell Beale (Beria), Jason Isaacs (Zhukov) and Michal Palin (Molotov) are in the groove but the others seem to be playing to other tunes.

So the set ups — for example the concert, Stalin’s death, the funeral — are full of great comic ideas, but lose so much in the execution.

Compared to other political satires — like To Be or Not To Be and Dr StrangeloveThe Death of Stalin has trouble leaving the drawing room.

In part, this is why the horror of the crimes these characters collectively engineered seem to remain locked up in the cupboard — quietly off stage, down in some dungeon where Beria often visits to rape, torture and murder.

Maybe on another viewing I’ll appreciate it more. But where does this film rise to the satiric level of just this one line from Ninotchka?: “The last mass trials have been a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”

At some point, the savagery under consideration warrants a satire ruled by absurdity. That’s the ultimate horror, maybe the key to state terrorism.

I think Stalin skirts that and instead we get a sort of Godfatherish/Soprano confab of committeepeople who could be running the local Lions Club. If you want to make a point about the reign of terror, why base a comedy so keenly on profiles and sideline the actual history?

Even as a comedy of menace, it stumbles: the “menace” isn’t so much omnipresent as selective. Compartmentalised. It’s like a hot potato — or an elephant not so much in the room but in the cellar.

If you want an enjoyable comedy, The Death of Stalin is a pleasant enough experience and many swear by its laugh quotient.

But as a “comedy of terrors”, it fails the history test. Its satire fails to embrace the cynical bitterness that Stalin (and his cronies) warranted.