Coal-black comedy from the master satirist

For those who’ve enjoyed Armando Iannucci’s latter day career as the driving force behind The Thick Of It and Veep, The Death Of Stalin reassuringly offers more of the same. Our story focuses on the undignified scrabble for desperate short-term survival and personal elevation along the corridors of power; only this time, the price of failure isn’t a debagging from a terrifying Scottish enforcer, but actual death. “I’m exhausted!” Declares one character. “I can’t remember who’s alive and who’s dead!”

As the title suggests, The Death Of Stalin follows the power struggle within the Kremlin following the Soviet leader’s death in March, 1953. These include Stalin’s deputy Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), head of the feared secret service, the NKVD. The supporting cast includes Paul Whitehouse, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend and a spectacularly ripe Jason Isaacs as Georgy Zhukov, head of the Red Army.

None of the actors conceal their accents, and there’s an ancillary pleasure watching their different comedic disciplines at work – from Buscemi’s quick-fire restlessness to Palin’s veteran farceur. Russell Beale, meanwhile, plays a straighter bat, giving us a genuine villain with Beria; although none of these men are exactly heroes.

Of course, Iannucci – co-writing with old cohorts David Schneider and Ian Martin, adapting the French graphic novel series by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin – can do this kind of thing in his sleep. “How do you run and plot at the same time?” is a line that could equally apply to any of his political comedies. But perhaps because The Death Of Stalin is based on real events, it feels as if Iannucci is reaching for a more profound point here. The Thick Of It and Veep were bleak appraisals of contemporary politics, but by stretching back over 50 years, Iannucci demonstrates that ineptness and bad faith within bureaucratic systems are not a modern phenomenon.

There is a scene where Beria produces Molotov’s wife, presumed dead, from incarceration in a Gulag – where it transpires she has been held as a traitor. Molotov’s response is simply to denounce her treachery once again; here is a man too long in the tooth to fall for Beria’s manipulations. These are men who – to quote Veep’s Selina Meyer – are “fluent in bastard”.

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The Death of Stalin will be released in UK cinemas on October 20

The October 2017 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring Jack White on the cover. Elsewhere in the issue, there are new interviews with Van Morrison, The National, The Dream Syndicate, Steve Winwood, Tony Visconti, The The, The Doors and Sparks. We review LCD Soundsystem, The Style Council, Chris Hillman, Hiss Golden Messenger and Frank Zappa. Our free CD features 15 tracks of the month’s best music, including Lee Renaldo, Mogwai, Wand, Chris Hillman, The Dream Syndicate, Hiss Golden Messenger and more.

Uncut: the past, present and future of great music.