There is a major problem about Armando Ianucci’s film inasmuch it treats a grotesque subject – the tyranny of Stalin and the subsequent scramble for power – as a comedy … and a not very funny one.
So they have to drag a new audience off the street, a conductor out of bed and re-play the performance.
However most of the remaining action centres around the Central Committee, portrayed as a bunch of hard-swearing thugs that would not be out of place in Goodfellas. Simon Russell Beale is sinister as Chief of Police Beria. The rest of the gang speak in a diversity of accents from cockney to American to broad Yorkshire.
The American actor Steve Buscemi plays Nikita Kruschev, Paul Whitehouse Mikoyan and Michael Palin, Molotov. The last two are of course well-known comics. This does not mean comedians cannot act – look how good Hugh Laurie was in The Night Manager – but their various accents reflect a film and direction that oscillates between terror with unpleasant torture scenes and round-ups and comic dialogue. I did laugh on occasion – the scene where they try to carry the body out of the bedroom like a piece of unwieldy furniture is undeniably funny – but most of the time I either did not laugh or felt uncomfortable for so doing. At two hours it drags its weight too.
Mrs Kruschev, renowned for her peasant ugliness, is a petite blonde. Were not the contents of Stalin’s study immaculately preserved, not all summarily removed?
There is little for the female audience to warm to, Andrea Riseborough is fine as Svetlana but she can handle more demanding roles and there is a feisty concert pianist who slips in a vicious message in the recording presented to Stalin but otherwise it’s about men bickering for power. The director of the wonderful In The Loop has found an odd subject matter for his talents and like Stalin himself this film is best soonest forgotten.