It’s 1953 in Moscow, and the world’s worst ever secretary, Joseph Stalin, has snuffed it. It’s left to his surviving cabinet – a mixture of the slavishly devoted, cut-throat and incompetent – to arrange his funeral and find a successor.
Armando Iannucci adapts this French graphic novel on the inner workings of the Soviet Union. Like Dr Strangelove it derives much of its humour from the inherent absurdity of the situation, fuelled by Iannucci’s trademark quick, natural dialogue, complete with creative swearing.
The excellent cast features legendary performers such as Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Paddy Considine and Michael Palin. There’s almost something pythoneque about the way these often rather British personalities are transposed to the imposing surroundings of Soviet Moscow – and it’s a comedy which probably wouldn’t have worked in Russian.
Iannucci wisely steers well clear of cheesy Russian accents. An English language comedy, it uses a variety of British and American accents to represent the diversity of accents in the diverse Soviet Union. But any risk this posed of taking us out of the situation is offset by the impressive production values.
The visual quality lends the film a striking authenticity, in spite of being filmed in London, with scenes that look like they could have been taken from Doctor Zhivago. In fact, as part of the Q&A that followed the film, an audience member who had grown up in the Soviet Union said it gave her flashbacks to her youth, and wanted to know how they had achieved such a level of detail.* The answer is research, thanks to which this film is able to become an informative thriller as well as an amusing farce.
*Armando Iannucci does a mean Q&A, by the way, unlike the dullard Michael Cumming.