On paper, Mr. Jones is a slamdunk of a historical drama. It’s the true story of the power of journalists to uncover the ugly truth of immoral government actions, and their nigh-on sacred duty to bring them to light, whatever the cost. And on paper, Agnieska Holland is the perfect candidate to do justice to such a film, having demonstrated a particularly strong sense of empathetic filmmaking in Europa Europa. But while there are genuinely moving moments peppered throughout Mr. Jones, the overall film is frustratingly inconsistent, and fails to fulfill the potential of its extraordinary source material.
James Norton plays Gareth Jones, a Welsh foreign minister under Lloyd George during the 1930s who, upon being fired, decides to travel to the Soviet Union as a journalist in hopes of getting an interview with Stalin. But after arriving in the Soviet Union, supposedly a worker’s paradise brought to life, he can’t shake the feeling that he is particularly unwelcome. Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), Moscow Bureau Chief for the New York Times and unofficial mouthpiece for the Soviet propaganda machine, runs interference during his visit, preventing any real reporting. But with the reluctant help of fellow writer Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), he is set on the trail of a story the Soviets have been viciously suppressing: the forced famine in Ukraine.
The segment of the film that Jones spends in Moscow is, surprisingly, a significant weak point. Although it’s appropriately cloak and dagger, it plays all of the Soviet subterfuge fairly on the nose and seems impatient to get to what it knows is the most compelling part of the story. As a result, Duranty and Brooks (the former an actual historical figure, the latter a work of fiction) are paper thin and woefully underdeveloped. It seems a shame to waste such vibrant actors, who were clearly game for something more but are relegated to the role of mere stepping stones along Jones’ journey.
But no matter: they’re quickly tossed aside once Jones gives his Soviet handlers the slip and boards a freight train bound for Ukraine. And it’s here that Holland’s talent for building captivating emotional beats out of simple gestures is finally put to good use. As he peels an orange, casually allowing the rind to fall to the floor of the train car, the eyes of his fellow passengers clock every inch of its trajectory. They’re wild with hunger, and are barely able to restrain themselves. When Jones, having left the majority of his luggage behind during his escape, buys a man’s winter coat for a loaf of bread rather than the money he originally offers, it’s clear that this is a level of famine neither he nor the viewers have ever experienced. A heartbreaking calculation has been made: better to freeze than starve.
The wintery, brutal landscape of a Ukraine that has been bled dry of its resources is used to devastating effect. The thin, drawn figures Jones meets along the way are no longer alive in any real sense of the world, but merely waiting to die. The horrific realities of the forced famine are vividly portrayed, shielding the viewer from none of its ugliness. A haunting folk song about deep, overwhelming hunger and devastation performed by a children’s choir lends a chilling, melancholic atmosphere to the film.
If the entire film was as effective as the segments that take place in Ukraine, Mr. Jones would be a triumph. But unfortunately, it rarely capitalizes on the raw emotional power of the story. It gets muddled in Soviet strong-arming and fails to develop compelling, three-dimensional characters to sustain the narrative, despite the best efforts of the actors.
Directed by: Agnieszka Holland
Written by: Andrea Chalupa
Cast: James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard