Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 18th, 2020
Mr. Jones (Agnieszka Holland, 2019) 2½ out of 4 stars.
The Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, born in 1900 and killed in 1935, lived a short life, but an eventful one, especially in his final decade. Arranging a trip to cover the ostensible miracle of the Soviet Union’s economy, booming at a time when the rest of the world suffered from a crippling depression, Jones uncovered a tragedy of epic proportions: the famine of 1932-33, during which millions starved in Ukraine due to a combination of grotesque central-government mismanagement and vengeful reprisals for the recalcitrance of peasants unwilling to adapt to forced collectivization. Not one to care about human lives, individual or collective, Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin nevertheless understood that it would be best to hide the catastrophe from prying outside eyes. Somehow, Jones broke through to Ukraine, later returning home to the United Kingdom to report on what he had seen. Though newspapers were initially reluctant to publish, eventually he got the word out. Sadly, he would perish two years later while on a different (also self-managed) expedition.
Most of this story is told in director Agnieszka Holland’s latest film, Mr. Jones, starring James Norton (Hampstead) as the eponymous hero. In a long career spanning multiple countries and film (and TV) genres, Holland, originally from Poland, has tackled historical dramas before, in films like the 2011 In Darkness or, my favorite, the 1990 Europa Europa. Here, she shows her usual fine sense of mise-en-scène and direction of actors, leading Norton to a fine performance in the lead. His Jones is a cunning wheeler-dealer, stopping at nothing to get his scoop, and motivated by a profound sense of justice. I have no idea whether this conforms to the real-life man, but it makes for a compelling protagonist.
The script, by Andrea Chalupa, is not always up to the task of guiding us coherently through the murky past, however, spending too much time on a lampoon of the dissipated (and now discredited) New York Times correspondent in Moscow, Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard, The Magnificent Seven), that may or may not adhere to the record but that mostly just gets in the way. Of far greater interest is the navigation of Soviet bureaucracy and the horrible facts uncovered once Norton makes it to his destination. There, the trauma is hard to watch, but also gripping.
Joining Norton and Sarsgaard is a very fine Vanessa Kirby (young Princess Margaret on Netflix’s The Crown), as Ada Brooks, a fellow journalist stationed in Russia, along with many equally talented bit players. The film never bores, but it does lose its way, at times. It’s certainly an interesting choice for today’s world, though, where, at least in the United States, the free press is lambasted as “fake news” from the highest echelons of power. Seen in that light, perhaps Mr. Jones can be forgiven its dramatic faults and celebrated, instead, as a paean to the glories of investigative reporting. Bring on the truth.