Do you remember the first time you watched Jaws, and you were really hyped up, but it was kind of disappointing? And you complained about the corny acting and the special effects and someone said, hey, you’ve missed the point?
And then you watched it again, and this time you got it, because you knew the secret: Jaws is not a film about sharks. Jaws is a film about fear.
That magical moment has never happened for me. I think Jaws is a terrible, boring film, and I always will. But I mention it now because The Death of Stalin is not about Stalin. Or sharks.
It’s about fear.
To be clear, the comparison to Jaws ends there. The Death of Stalin is beautifully made, surprisingly short, and very, very funny.
But because this is an Armando Iannucci film, the same moment or line of dialogue is simultaneously hilarious and horrifying. For the first few minutes of the film, we watch some poor sod being dragged off to the gulag in the background of every scene. The cumulative effect makes you laugh – and then look over your shoulder. Just in case.
The sets are exquisite. With a little knowledge of Moscow, I spent half the film trying to figure out how they ever got permission to film on location; it turns out they didn’t, but they managed to reproduce it flawlessly. The roads are huge and empty. The government buildings are cavernous, expensively decorated and yet still somehow shabby.
Iannucci has managed to assemble a terrific cast: Simon Russell Beale, Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Isaacs. Even Michael Palin pops up, as friendly and helpless-looking as ever, but not even he can get away with complete naïveté. Only the brutal and corrupt survived around Stalin, and Iannucci is determined to show you just how boring, venal and crude the guiding lights of Stalin’s USSR really were.
Then there’s the fear. I won’t tell you who the worst one is; you’ll be able to spot him on the screen. And you’ll leave the cinema very, very relieved that he’s not around any more.