By Chris Hughes (Manchester, England)
In a speech at Washington’s National Gallery of Art in 2013, the Polish director, Agnieszka Holland condemned cinema’s neglect of events of the Soviet era. She takes steps to remedy that failure with her film, Mr. Jones. Holland has said that her aim in making it “was to remind people of Stalin’s crimes which are practically forgotten and forgiven.”
The movie focuses on the intentional starvation of millions of Ukrainians by the Soviet regime between 1932 and 1933, known as the Holodomor. The story is told through the eyes of the Welsh journalist and unlikely hero who bravely exposed it, Gareth Jones. A denouncer of “fake news” before it was known as such, he is played with the appropriate degree of earnest intensity by James Norton who impresses throughout.
The first act, in which Jones uncovers the induced famine, having travelled to Moscow to interview Stalin, resembles a Dashell Hammett thriller. He meets the suitably noirish Peter Sarsgaard and Vanessa Kirby as journalists, Walter Duranty and Ada Brooks. The sleazy Duranty tows the Stalin party line whilst the enigmatic Brooks suggests sympathy with Jones. Sarsgaard and Kirby manage to give good performances despite a lack of support from the script. The characters they portray are ill defined, particularly Ada whose interaction with Jones seems like the halfhearted insertion of an inadequate, fictional love interest. It is however the Moscow section of Mr. Jones which though uneven, plays best. In particular, a hedonistic party filmed as if with a hand held camera is effective but out of kilter with the rest of the movie.
The story moves on from Moscow to show the famine itself as Jones witnesses it first hand when he makes an unofficial trip to Ukraine. Although the harrowing depiction of depravity is powerful, its impact is lessened by the tonal difference with the preceding scenes in Moscow. The final act where Jones returns home to tell of his findings whilst suffering from trauma unfolds like a rushed and insubstantial political drama. Loose ends are too neatly and speedily tied up apart from Jones’s psychological problems which are touched on but not explored. The film again fails to be affecting owing to another change of style, contributing further to its lack of coherence.
A framing device with George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) which indicates Jones’s account of his discovery informed Animal Farm doesn’t work. There is too little in the movie to create a connection. Apparently the film was cut following its debut at the Berlin Film Festival. It’s regrettable that the scenes which relate to this conceit were not excised. One wonders whether the removal of footage not so expendable has resulted in the disjointed narrative which remains.
The obvious noble intent of this movie makes it deserving of attention which is rewarded with content which is meritorious. Overall though this is as worthy as it ought to be but nowhere near as compelling as it should be.
Mr. Jones is available now on digital platforms.