Men in power can be outrageous and Iannucci seems to know that well. Not only does he know but he is also brilliant at conveying this on screen in the form of sharp satire, with the contribution of extremely talented individuals.
The canvas is the Soviet-era, and particularly the days after the death of the Union’s great leader. Naturally, his comrades start playing dancing chairs first in complete shock, and moments later mad for the opportunity to replace the tyrant, they start plotting and exchanging creative swearing with poisonous ease.
The characters are caricatures of a different time and yet, alarmingly familiar. The ensemble cast is exceptional and admittedly one of the two most unique elements of the film, the other being Iannucci’s pen.
Speaking of which, I was particularly surprised that the film embraced the ugliness of realism, in the sense that the atrocities taking place under the Stalin’s rule – kidnapping, torture, rape, executions – were bluntly displayed and blended into social satire and farcical scenes. Personally, I felt this horrific background reduced the film’s comical effect significantly in spite of them being given the minimum possible screen time.
Political amorality is depicted in the faces of the comrades that pass quickly from antagonising to plotting the elimination of one another. The chief of Soviet security, Beria is a figure of satanic appetite and monstrous efficiency in pulling the strings and pushing his rivals to the edge. Simon Russell Beale is such a powerful performer that makes this cartoonish character feel upsettingly real.
Michael Palin is superb as Molotov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs; a pitiful, passive and self-sacrificial man with a comical devotion to the Stalinism. Steve Buscemi is Nikita Khrushchev, the head of the Party and sets the great plan of de-Stalinizing the country with nervous anticipation and dramatic gestures that entertain. Jeffrey Tambor is a ridiculous, vain and extravagant Malenkov. From Secretary of the Central Committee he rises to Chairman when the short, foul-mouthed, corrupted leader is put into his red-ribbon box and he is such a delight while doing so. Malenkov’s naivety and asinine gaze makes us almost pity him despite his crimes.
Jason Isaacs is outstanding as the uncouth war hero with the heavy accent and preposterous collection of metals on his chest. Isaacs is an extremely gifted actor and is also responsible for intense laughter, cracking us up simply by the way he bears himself as the pompous Military Commander with the signature scar. As Stalin’s offspring, Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend are given their fair amount of funny lines and neurotic weirdness. Let’s not forget Paddy Considine who opens the film as Andreyev, the panicky radio producer who needs to find a way to satisfy the leader under time pressure.
The film moves fast and has an intense, almost neurotic pulse as stinging exchanges full of meaning take place. In the comical ridiculousness of this conception reality is deeply entrenched and although, it reduces the power of comedy it adds to the intertemporal social and political satire attempted here. For instance, there are scenes like the decision-making/ voting one, the absurdity of which touches upon our most basic human flaws and so do all lines/ jokes betraying the thirst for power.
After the film you might drink Vodka while re-watching Woody Allen’s “Love and Death”, revisit a Dostoyevsky’s novel, fantasize upon what role you’d assume in such an unholy Commission, think about a time when you desperately wanted to fill someone else’s shoes and how far you ended up going to see it happen, you might also delve into the work of Russian classical composers while contemplating the extend of corruption in your country’s political scene and then you might end up drinking more Vodka to forget….