Director(s): Agnieszka Holland
Writer(s): Andrea Chalupa
Cast: James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard, Joseph Mawle, Fenella Woolgar and Kenneth Cranham
Reviewed by: Ian Evans on
Release Date(s)Jun 19, 2020 - Apple/Cineplex Store
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Mr. Jones, which is available on via Apple and the Cineplex Store on June 19th, is one of those films that you hope will be great but misses the target by this much. It has all the ingredients to be great. It’s directed by eminent Polish director Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, In Darkness), it has a great cast led by James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, and Peter Sarsgaard and it tells the story of Stalin’s genocide in Ukraine, the man-made famine known as the Holodomor (Голодомо́р). However, the script by Andrea Chalupa never finds a clear path through the story.
Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton) has been working as a foreign affairs advisor to former British PM David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham). He’s just back from interviewing Hitler and Goebbels and briefs Lloyd George and his team on the growing threat presented by the new German Chancellor. His warnings are dismissed because no one can afford another war and anyway, Hitler will soon learn that “there’s a great deal of difference between holding a rally and running a country.” I almost expected the movie to pause at that point to allow the audience to get the contemporary reference.
Jones is determined to interview the Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin. Given the collapse of the world economy, something about Stalin’s spending spree doesn’t add up and a tip from a fellow journalist has Jones working out a way to get to Moscow. Upon arriving in Moscow, he’s met by New York Times Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard) and reporter Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby). From the stuffy rooms of Britain, the film suddenly lurches in feel towards a film noir mystery. There’s foul play, reporters aren’t allowed to leave Moscow, Duranty appears to be toeing the party line while engaging in drug-fueled orgies, and Brooks exudes mystery and heat. Something’s afoot in Ukraine and Jones needs to find out.
Another tonal lurch occurs as Jones finagles a trip to Ukraine and manages to slip away to see the real country. This part of the world could use Duranty’s opium escapism but it’s a hellscape of starvation, as Stalin exports all the food to fill the Soviet coffers. Bodies line the streets so much that others just step past them and orphaned children in the villages are forced to do whatever it takes to survive. But we lurch once again when Jones returns to the UK and is accused of spreading “false news.” (Ring a bell?) The political class in Europe refuses to hear bad news about someone they feel they need to be allies with, while the academics and society types see Stalin’s Soviet Union as some sort of Utopian experiment.
The film opens and closes with George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) writing Animal Farm. The novella is an allegory for Stalin’s corruption of the ideals of the Russian Revolution, but it was published more than a decade after Jones’ story and though related seems an unnecessary diversion from a story that’s so powerful in its own right.
Norton’s Jones defines the earnest reporter who puts the quest for truth above their own safety. Sarsgaard is positively oily as the duplicitous Duranty, who slides between his public and private personas to protect his tail and his access. Kirby’s Brooks is a star reporter in a time and locale where not many women would be recognized as such. Though she has some pivotal moments, we have to accept she’s a star rather than see why.
Cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk’s beautiful work transitions flawlessly from the stuffy halls of British power to the decadence of Duranty’s Moscow and then to the brutal harshness of the winter famine in Ukraine. The grey bleakness can’t help but drag the viewer into feeling the despair of a people being abused so badly by a distant government.
Mr. Jones makes us realize that not much has changed. Governments that claim to have high moral ground turn a blind eye to atrocities if confronting them hurts their financial and/or strategic interests. The powers that be will try to discredit and silence the journalists and whistleblowers whose uncovering of the truth can upset those interests. And yes, some in the media will trade their own integrity for access and a blind eye to their own activities.
Mr. Jones is still an important film to see, especially if you know nothing about the Holodomor. It’s beautifully shot and well-acted, but it ultimately feels a bit disjointed and gives some elements of the story short shrift. It could have been the ultimate story of Stalin’s Ukrainian genocide or the last word on Gareth Jone’s integrity and tireless search for the truth, but it ends up not being either.
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