He’s good, is writer/director Armando Iannucci (Veep, The Thick of It). Just how good becomes clear in the very first scenes of this blacker than black satire, dealing with events after the Russian dictator Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953.
As the despotic Communist leader keels over on his carpet (with everyone too scared to announce his demise), the members of the Commissariat gather to discuss what to do next. His deputy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor, fabulously fey and petulant) should now take over the reins of power, if the rigid party structure is to be followed.
But with the likes of Khrushchev (an excellent Steve Buscemi), Molotov (Michael Palin) and Beria (Simon Russell Beale) all in the picture, so-called friendships, family ties and even spouses are thrown to the lions in a mad, sad, frankly terrifying power grab. These men would sell their mother (and probably have) in order to become top dog. They wheedle, they deal, they dissemble and they downright lie as they all attempt to get the upper hand.
Meanwhile, Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) frets about the funeral arrangements and tries to keep her unhinged alcoholic brother (Rupert Friend) away from the corridors of power. And just when you think the back-biting and plotting couldn’t get any worse, crashing into the action comes the no-nonsense head of the armed forces Zhukov (a fabulously bluff Jason Isaacs), all bluster and energy accompanied by lots of soldiers brandishing guns. Zhukov is strictly old school; if people aren’t doing what you want them to do there’s a simple solution, you shoot them. And so he does. Lots of them.
It is a case of the madmen taking over the asylum and the fact that it is historically all true just makes it even more appalling funny. Surely not? you think, then you look at what is happening in the Whitehouse and Number 10 and think maybe, surely yes.
Iannucci knows how to turn the screws just when you think things couldn’t get any more horrifying. He’s helped enormously by a cast obviously relishing each and every awful moment (in a variety of mismatched accents).
Who said films about politics have to be dry and boring? This is as sharp and as surprising as a stiletto slipping between your ribs.