There aren’t many people outside of Ukraine who have ever heard of Gareth Jones. The young Welshman is recognised as a hero there for exposing to the Western world the Holodomor (“killing by starvation”) that took place in that country in the early 1930s. Jones’ story is brought to life in Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s (SPOOR; IN DARKNESS; EUROPA EUROPA) latest film, MR. JONES.
As the film opens, Jones (James Norton, LITTLE WOMEN) is the foreign affairs advisor to former British prime minister David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham, FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL). With Hitler sabre-rattling in Germany, the British are wondering if they should cozy up to Stalin. Jones, who speaks Russian, has heard about the economic and technological achievements happening in the Soviet Union but he wonders where Stalin is getting all the money to do that. When he loses his job due to budget cutbacks (this is the Great Depression, after all), he leverages his connections to get official permission to go to Moscow to hopefully interview Stalin and find out. Once there, he meets Pulitzer prize winner Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard, AN EDUCATION; JACKIE; LOVING PABLO), who assures him that grain from the Soviet Union’s breadbasket of Ukraine is “Stalin’s gold”. Duranty’s protégée, Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby, CHARLIE COUNTRYMAN; ME BEFORE YOU; MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT; TV’s THE CROWN), however, reveals to Jones that there’s more to it than just that. After shaking his Soviet handler, Jones makes his way to rural Ukraine where he sees for himself the disastrous results of Stalin’s collectivization program. When he returns to the West, he publishes his account of the empty villages, enforced grain collection, mass starvation and even cannibalism only to be publicly contradicted by the highly respected Duranty.
When you watch an Agnieszka Holland film, you know you’re in for a highly stylized visual treat and MR. JONES is no exception. Unfortunately, both she and the actors are let down by a weak script by first-timer Andrea Chalupa, who also gets a producer’s credit here. Chalupa’s book, Orwell and the Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm, forms the basis for the story. Here, she ties Jones’ story to George Orwell writing his famous allegory, Animal Farm, and even has the two men meet up at a London restaurant after the former’s return from the Soviet Union. I don’t know if they ever met in real life but using Orwell as a framing device just doesn’t work in the film.
Jones’ story is both heroic and tragic but audiences only learn about his fate in a title card seen at the end of the film. Even then, the two lines don’t seem to be enough to give the man his due. Similarly given short shrift is Brooks. We learn very little about her and, if she had a physical relationship with Jones, the film doesn’t give it enough exploration. Maybe this film needed to be longer and more epic in the vein of Warren Beatty’s 1981 film, REDS. As it is, it’s fine but it’s not going to be memorable. At the very least though, MR. JONES delivers a timely message on the importance of journalistic integrity. In this day of politicians who repeatedly cry “Fake news!” and journalists who are either jailed or killed for reporting the truth, the relevance could not be clearer.
MR. JONES premiered at the Berlinale in February last year and started a global roll-out in February of this year before the pandemic shunted it to the streaming services. It’s opening in our cinemas in Hong Kong tomorrow (October 8). While it’s a pretty good film, it’s not as powerful as it should have or could have been.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, October 9th, 8:30 am HK time!
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