Madnesses pile up in The Death of Stalin, too fast and too numerous to itemise. Victims of tyranny are snatched away in the dead of night, locked in basements, or pushed down staircases at Chaplinesque speed. The terms of engagement change halfway through a conversation: forbidden thoughts are now doctrine; the condemned rise again. ‘I’ve had nightmares that make more sense than this,’ laments one lackey.
Those familiar with the work of director and co-writer Armando Iannucci will know, to some degree, what to expect from The Death of Stalin: a part improvised, expletive-laden ensemble comedy, its tone black as tar. But the film also represents a departure for the director, whose best-known works, The Thick of It and Veep, are television satires of contemporary British and American politics, respectively, shot vérité-style in drab and interchangeable backrooms. The Death of Stalin, adapted from the French graphic novel by Fabien Nury (2017), is Iannucci’s first historical comedy, and his most cartoonish. These corridors of power are marbled and cold; military uniforms and grandiose moustaches abound. But there remains, for the contemporary viewer, a queasily familiar sense of being exhausted by the pace of daily outrages.