Moscow, 1953 and Joseph Stalin, murderous dictator of the Soviet Union, drops dead in his office. Stalin's underlings assemble and try to figure out what comes next. It takes them a while to figure out, but what comes next is the race to be the next Soviet leader.
The Death of Stalin is the new comedy from Veep creator Armando Iannucci. And Iannucci goes for the absurd from the get-go. The film opens as a concert is being broadcast by Radio Moscow. At the end of the concert, a radio technician (Paddy Considine) receives a phone call from Stalin requesting a recording of the concert. Only problem is, the concert wasn't recorded. The radio man, terrified, orders the audience back into their seats and demands the orchestra plays the concert again. But the pianist (Olga Kurylenko) refuses, expressing her hatred of Stalin. She relents after the radio man pays her off, the concert is replayed and a recording made. But the pianist isn't satisfied and she slips in a hate-filled letter to Stalin in the sleeve of the concert recording.
It's that letter that Stalin is reading when he drops dead. The evil leader of the secret police, Beria (Simon Russell Beale), is first to the body and is joined soon after by Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor). Nikita Kruschev (Steve Buscemi) is next - he arrives in his pyjamas. By default, the leader's job goes to Malenkov, but it is soon apparent that this is acceptable to nobody except Malenkov, and a battle ensues between Kruschev and Beria, both men plotting and scheming their way to the top.
The Death of Stalin was adapted by Iannucci, along with David Schneider and Ian Martin, from a series of French graphic novels. It is a deeply dark film satirising power, bureaucracy and tyrannical rule. It's a brave film, not least in the way it uses its big-name, trans-Atlantic cast, who all deliver their lines in their natural accents. There are some tremendous performances, most notably from Simon Russell Beale whose Beria is funny, pompous and evil, often simultaneously. Jeffrey Tambor, as the vain and slow-witted Malenkov is good for a few laughs. Michael Palin's Molotov is also memorable.
Where the film falters is in the comedy. Many times it feels like this amazing cast is trapped in a bad sitcom. This is most apparent when the jokes are about the mundane - a scene in which Kruschev is trying to flush a toilet and Molotov tells him you have to wait until the bowl fills is like something from a bad episode of Seinfeld. And the idea that tyrannical rule (or even politics in general) involves duplicity and sometimes stupidity from its participants is not that hard to fathom, but here it's treated like a profound revelation and mined for laughs over and over again.
That's not to say the whole thing misses entirely - there are those who will feel the film hits just the right notes, especially watchers of modern-day Russia. If nothing else, The Death of Stalin is a daring outing.