I had been eagerly anticipating the release of this film ever since I heard about its debut in England lost November. This is because it is the creation of Armando Iannucci, who has a string of successful political satires such as the British TV series The Thick of It, the American TV series Veep, and the transatlantic comedy film In The Loop (2009) that dealt with how the American and British governments colluded to sell the phony case for the invasion of Iraq. Iannucci is a writer of sharp insight and dialogue and the topic of this film, dealing with all the political infighting for power immediately following the death of Stalin, got rave reviews on its release.
Sadly, I was disappointed. The film had its moments but was not as funny as I had expected it to be. I think I know why. The ruthlessness of Stalin and his purges of enemies are well known and in this film they are taken as a given. Stalin dies early in the film and the person who is the real villain is Lavrenty Beria, the head of the secret police and the person who carried out Stalin’s wishes and ordered the torture, murder, and internal exiles of perceived enemies, going well beyond what was required of him, including rapes of women. He was notorious for his cruelty. But he is not that well known to the general public and the filmmakers spent some time at the beginning establishing his evil character by showing his actions. But that grim beginning made it difficult for me to laugh at the later humor.
This has always been a problem for me with comedies that have violence. If violence is necessary for the story to make sense, I prefer if it is just referred to and left off-screen. It is quite possible to show that a character is evil without making it manifest. In my mind, a film can be violent or it can be funny. It cannot be both.
An interesting aspect of this film is the accents. There is always a problem when a film is set in a country where the language spoken is not English but the film features an English-speaking cast, like this one. A device that is often employed is to have the speakers talk in English but with the kind of accent that speakers of that country would have if they spoke English, the idea being to make the viewer think that the speaker was speaking in that other language but that we can somehow understand it. It never works for me.
In this film, they decided to let all the actors speak with their own accent. So Stalin had a British working class (Cockney?) accent while Nikita Khrushchev (played by the always excellent Steve Buscemi) had an American accent, and so on. After the initial surprise, the mix of accents did not, for me at least, distract from the film and was less grating than listening to them speak English with faux-Russian accents.
Here’s the trailer.