Brow Beat

In Praise of The Death of Stalin’s Terrible Accents

Armando Iannucci’s Soviet Union satire lets its actors speak like they would at home. More movies should do that.

Would making the Soviet leaders speak to each other in Russian-accented English really be more believable?
Would making the Soviet leaders speak to each other in Russian-accented English really be more believable?
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Disney/Marvel Studios, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC, and IFC Films.

Imagine Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and military commander Georgy Zhukov gathering in a hallway, conspiring in hushed tones. Now imagine that they’re played by Steve Buscemi and English actor Jason Isaacs, and they talk like this:

ISAACS: What the fuck were you thinking?

BUSCEMI: I don’t know, OK? But I did it. And you really have to help me.

ISAACS: Help with what? Bodies piling up in the street. It’s a bit late, innit?

Isaacs is speaking with a Broad Yorkshire accent while Buscemi sounds like he grew up on the streets of Brooklyn (which, in fact, he did). They’re both, of course, playing Russians.

By this point in Veep creator Armando Iannucci’s new movie The Death of Stalin, we’re already used to this patchwork of dialects. The Death of Stalin’s main cast is composed mainly of English actors, including Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, and Andrea Riseborough, speaking with (more or less) their native accents. Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor, the only other American lead in the cast, speak without any kind of affectation at all. Other players who do put on accents have at least chosen ones from their country of origin: Isaacs isn’t from Leeds, but he is from Liverpool, while British actor Paul Whitehouse plays Anastas Mikoyan as a cockney. In fact, with the exception of a couple of background actors who are actually speaking in Russian, there’s nary a Russian accent to be found in this film, even though it’s set amid a crisis of succession in 1953 Moscow.

Director Iannucci explained the decision to Metro: “I felt Russian accents would just kill the comedy dead,” he said. “It makes the whole thing artificial. It makes you feel like you’re not there. And I want people to feel like they’re there.”

I wish more directors would take that advice. Iannucci is hardly the first filmmaker to let his actors use their natural accents—Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ took heat for (among many other things) doing the same thing in 1988, with accents that “suggested the Lower East Side more than the Middle East”—but it works so well here that it makes you wonder why so many movies set abroad insist on the farce. When done poorly, a fake accent can be incredibly distracting (see: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Alexander, K-19: The Widowmaker), and in reality, none of these characters would be speaking English anyway, so long as we’re pretending that people in a non-English-speaking country all speak to each other in English, why not let the actors use accents they’re comfortable with?

In the case of The Death of Stalin, which is otherwise quite historically accurate, the wide variety of accents is much more interesting to the ear than a bunch of actors using the same, carefully coached, generic Russian accent, probably with varying degrees of success. Iannucci himself notes that he “wanted a range of English accents, to indicate the geographic spread of this Empire.” And it works surprisingly well, especially for a comedy, to have members of Stalin’s inner circle bickering using Britishisms that are more or less familiar. (I’m not sure how you’d translate “clattering fannies” into equivalent Russian slang, but I do know that it’s very funny when Rupert Friend’s Vasily Stalin screams it at a bunch of jittery hockey players.)

Perhaps the best decision Iannucci makes is to let Buscemi and Tambor, the two Americans in the bunch, speak normally, rather than try to blend them into the rest of the cast. British accents are especially difficult for Americans to pull off, and Buscemi’s, in particular, is rubbish. Why should they spend hours working with a dialect coach when their own accents are not only perfectly fine, but well-suited to their characters? Buscemi, as Nikita Krushchev, is something of an outsider, considered one of the least likely in Stalin’s inner circle to assume the position of power, while Tambor, as Georgy Malenkov, is a bit of a bumbler, and Tambor plays him as the dopey American amid a bunch of cleverer, conniving Brits.

Jeff Baena’s The Little Hours, an adaptation of Boccaccio’s Decameron, made a similar choice last year. Despite the film being set in 14th-century Italy, Aubrey Plaza, Dave Franco, and the majority of the cast speak like contemporary Americans rather than putting on fake Italian accents, or worse, the British accent that has become the standard for movies with medieval or fantasy settings. In The Little Hours, the accents are a tribute to the source material, because Boccaccio wrote in the Italian vernacular during a time when Latin was the go-to for serious literature. In The Death of Stalin, the familiarity of the accents makes the action feel closer to home and helps sell the parallels between the Soviet Presidium and other political administrations, including the modern British and American governments, which Iannucci has satirized in The Thick of It and Veep.

In an age where Black Panther and Wonder Woman invested valuable time and energy teaching their actors fictional accents with mixed results, The Death of Stalin uses its actors’ natural accents to its advantage. The movie is better off for that choice, and anyone who disagrees is a clattering fanny.