Marine Furet reviews Mr Jones, the new film from Polish director Agnieska Holland about the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who lifted the lid on Stalin’s genocidal starvation of Ukraine in the 1930s.
1933. While world leaders willfully closed their eyes to the growing threat of Nazism and the illusions of Stalinism, a few voices persisted in warning their rulers of the danger that was about to determine the fate of Europe. Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (1905 – 1935) was one of the whistle-blowers who attempted alert his contemporaries to the necessity of taking a closer look at the actions of the Third Reich and of the USSR. After securing an interview with Hitler, Jones went on to bear witness to the Soviet famine and to the Holodomor, a deadly man-engineered starvation policy that killed millions in Ukraine in 1932 and 1933. Jones was the first journalist to report openly on the effects of the disaster, publicly condemning the lies of Stalinism. His bravery cost him his life: Jones was assassinated while on duty in Mongolia, at the age of 29.
With such a gripping storyline, it is astounding that Agniezka Holland’s Mr Jones should make for such tedious watching at times. Two hours of unequal narration follow Gareth Jones (James Norton) from his dismissal from Lloyd George’s coterie to Russia in a sepia-coloured piece of cinema with a few touches of communist red. The result is a very beige biopic which takes one of the twentieth century’s most incredible feats of courage and turns it into a narrative in which the central protagonists have little space to breathe.
Indeed, try as he might, Norton can do little against the force of a script that propels him from scene to scene at the pace of a Soviet steam locomotive driving a Western journalist on a speedy tour of Russia. His rendition of Gareth Jones as a naive idealist faced with cowardice and cynicism but obsessed by his quest for “the truth” is unimpeachable, but depthless for want of a stronger sense of character development. The addition of Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby) as Jones’s transient love interest feels like an insufficient attempt at infusing some personality into the story’s central hero. Their intrigue remains far too disconnected from Jones’s urge to uncover Stalin’s machinations, and it exposes one of the film’s main flaws: its tendency to jump from one mood to another, at the risk of losing sight of its central thread.
We also meet Peter Sarsgaard as Walter Duranty, the New York Times’ chief reporter in Russia who denied the existence of the famine and remains one of the Pulitzer’s most embarrassing recipients. In a strange scene that seems to have been taken straight from the imagination of Christopher Isherwood, one of the best portraitists of decadent Europe between the wars, Duranty, wearing only a thong, hosts a drug-filled party in which straight-laced Jones carries on obsessively questioning his colleagues about Stalin’s Five-year Plan as though he was not finding himself in a room full of naked prostitutes. The result is humorously atmospheric, thanks to Sarsgaard’s suitably slimy performance, but the decadent mood quickly recedes as we finally get to the famine itself.
Jones’s journey through Ukraine takes up less than a quarter of Mr Jones and gives the impression that we are now watching another film altogether, and that this is perhaps the one we should have been watching from the start. For a surreal half hour, Jones walks through a white wasteland, in which the only creatures he encounters are disembodied ghosts reduced to an all-encompassing, all-destroying hunger. The cinematography turns grey and white, and the men, women, and children who cross Jones’s path all assume the foreboding air of wraiths that speak of a tragedy still to come. The skeleton-like bodies, hairless faces and hollowed-out expressions give the whole episode a phantasmagorical air, but the scenes are pervaded with a harsh truth that does not countenance approximation. The Holodomor (Ukrainian for “death by starvation”) was officially recognized as a genocide by law in 2006, testifying to the enduring tensions that have obscured the consequences of Soviet domination over its neighbours, and it is to the film’s credit that it seeks to bring light on an event that received so little attention. It is regrettable, however, that Holland does not follow through with this moment, and quickly turns her attention to other matters.
Mr Jones’s narration is occasionally interrupted by short scenes in which we see another of history’s great witnesses, none other than George Orwell, at work on Animal Farm. The film opens, in fact, on Orwell’s difficulties in framing this story too strange and too cruel to be believed. Orwell worries that his book ‘will not speak for itself’, and I cannot help but wonder if Holland had the same fears. In the face of the silent horror of the Holodomor, Duranty’s decadent parties and Ada Brooks’s figure-hugging period costumes feel like an unnecessary distraction that jarringly contrast with the otherworldliness of Jones’s descent into Hell, for which he seems woefully ill-prepared. We then have to follow him back to Moscow, and to his native Barry, where it quickly becomes clear that the horrors he has seen have followed him. Once again, the cinematography plays on contrasts: from the colourless wilderness of Ukraine, we are brought back to bustling London, and then to the banality of a small seaside town. Like Jones’s, however, I must confess that my attention lingers behind, with the haunting song of the famished children of Ukraine, who would have deserved more than a cameo.
Mr Jones directed by Agnieska Holland is on general cinema release now.
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Marine Furet is a contributor to Wales Arts Review.