Mr. Jones (2019)

Mr. Jones is a historical drama about a journalist’s discovery of Stalin’s famine in 1930s Ukraine. It has a solid cast and director, but it never quite lives up to its full potential despite having some affectingly powerful and cinematic portions.

It’s based on a true story about Welsh journalist Gareth Jones. A young, well-educated and ambitious foreign affairs advisor to UK Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Jones had achieved recognition for being the first journalist to interview Hitler after his ascension to Chancellor. When he realises that something is amiss with the Soviet Union’s productivity figures, Jones travels to Moscow to try to interview Stalin before breaking loose of his Soviet minders to see the Ukraine for himself. Formerly known as the ‘breadbasket of Europe’, he finds millions starving to death as Stalin requisitions wheat from the farms. But it seems even the British press lack the appetite to tell this truth.

Mr. Jones is a mainstream film that attempts to dramatise a compelling true story and hopes that its theme of state-controlled media and ‘fake news’ will find resonance with today’s political landscape. The story is framed by George Orwell writing Animal Farm, which the film claims was inspired by Jones’s revelations.

Peter Sarsgaard, James Norton, and Vanessa Kirby in Mr. Jones
Peter Sarsgaard, James Norton, and Vanessa Kirby in Mr. Jones

The trio of lead actors are solid if unexceptional. Jones is played by James Norton, who is best known for British TV roles and had his film debut in An Education. He has a love interest in Moscow-based English journalist Ada Brooks, played by Vanessa Kirby, who played Princess Margaret in The Crown and was in 2018’s enjoyable Mission: Impossible – Fallout. The villain of the piece is Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), a true-life American journalist who moved in powerful circles and was keen to suppress Jones’s revelations. Smaller roles go to Kenneth Cranham as David Lloyd George and Joseph Mawle as George Orwell.

Mr. Jones looks handsome, it’s nicely filmed with (an only slightly recognisable) Edinburgh standing in as 1930s London, and Warsaw and Krakov standing in for Moscow; unsurprisingly, Russia has not been sympathetic to this film. The choice of opulent, beautiful interior locations adds a sense of luxury and heritage to the production design. The camerawork by Tomasz Naumiuk uses strong lighting in the style of Spielberg’s cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, and contemporary music effectively defines the period, although the modern soundtrack features an irritating and obvious pastiche of Steve Reich’s ‘Different Trains’.

The problem is the screenplay. I expect it’s always difficult to mould history into a compelling cinematic narrative, but unfortunately much of script is pedestrian and clumsy, particularly in the opening act. Plot points are hammered home by unsubtle dialogue and developments lack credibility. No sooner has our unlikely hero encountered Vanessa Kirby’s young journalist, suddenly she and Mr Jones have a thing going on.

James Norton and Vanessa Kirby in Mr. Jones

This is a shame because director Agnieszka Holland has a lot of integrity and from the Q&A clearly is driven to tell the truth about historical tragedies. The Polish director was an assistant to Andrzej Wajda in her early career and later co-wrote the screenplay for Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue. She has made several films exploring the Holocaust including 1990’s Europa Europa, which is perhaps her most famous film, and In Darkness (2011). She has also directed episodes of The Wire, Treme, House of Cards and The Killing for US TV.

Fortunately, everything changes when the action and filming moves to Ukraine. This portion is genuinely powerful and cinematically impressive. Largely dialogue-free, the tone and style alter dramatically, in start contrast to the rather opulent and conventional first act. I asked Holland about this, and she confirmed that the abrupt change in tone was very intentional.

Agnieszka Holland discussing her film Mr Jones at the London Film Festival on 7th October 2019
Agnieszka Holland discussing her film Mr Jones at the London Film Festival on 7th October 2019

Rather than literally depict endless emaciated, starving multitudes, the film takes a more impressionistic and expressive approach. Jones becomes a small figure surrounded by the empty white snowy wilderness. Villages virtually abandoned, carts carry away frozen bodies of those starved to death. We hear eerie children’s voices singing a haunting duet about a neighbour gone mad and eating his children, the lyrics were apparently taken from a real contemporaneous song. Some of the images are so emotionally resonant and appalling they could have come from a Cormac McCarthy novel.

This is pure cinema, poetic and expressive, and simply conveyed. Unburdened by plotting and dialogue, it says far more than the cumbersome earlier narrative. It’s masterful, and I wished more of the film had been like this.

James Norton in Mr. Jones
James Norton in Mr. Jones

It’s possible that I’m being too harsh. Many in the audience at my screening seemed to be emotionally engaged with the entire film and there were audible gasps when closing title cards clarified the fate of the real-life protagonists. But for me the flaws in the opening and closing acts took me out of the narrative, which I found merely procedural rather than engaging.

The connection with Orwell is relatively unimportant to the main story but seems to be emphasised as a hook that the producers hope will pull in the crowds. It was also the hook that drew Holland to the screenplay, but it seems to be a mere footnote given undue prominence. I’m no Orwell expert, but I couldn’t find any mention of Gareth Jones in Orwell’s biography by Bernard Crick. Of course, Orwell gives the name ‘Jones’ to the farmer in Animal Farm, and maybe that’s more than a coincidence. However, a line in Orwell’s introduction to the Ukraine edition of Animal Farm (that I found in my copy of Everyman’s collection of Orwell essays) offers a powerful commentary on the film’s backdrop:

“Any serious criticism of the Soviet regime, any disclosure of facts which the Soviet government would prefer to keep hidden, is next door to unprintable”.

‘The Freedom of the Press’, George Orwell, introduction to Animal Farm 17th August 1945

That, more than anything else, emphasises the truth behind this flawed but worthy film.

James Norton in Mr. Jones

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