Directed by: Agnieszka Holland
Written by: Andrea Chalupa
An extraordinary story of courage and integrity, Mr Jones is Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who travelled to the Soviet Union to locate the power behind the Stalinist regime.
The film begins in 1930’s London. Gareth is a foreign advisor to David Lloyd George, and has returned from Germany after interviewing Hitler. He warns this new player on the world stage is not to be underestimated. He presses Lloyd George to get him into Moscow, for an interview with Stalin.
Jones – played here by James Norton – is quietly determined. Norton adds a muscularity to the character, which is much needed when Jones’ initial aim of interviewing Stalin takes him down a much darker path. Jones arrives in Moscow, and is greeted by British and American journalists. He soon discovers they are not allowed to travel beyond the city, and realises there is something to be uncovered; of much more interest than any staged encounter.
Jones’ investigative skills – not to mention a degree in Russian from Cambridge – serve him well as he hops trains out of Moscow and heads into Ukraine’s unblinking expanse of snow and ice. What he finds, however, nothing can prepare him for. Stalin’s genocidal famine – the Holomodor – is in full effect. Jones finds empty villages, starving children and a weakened populace who will do anything to survive. He begins to ask questions, and to his horror, these are not isolated incidents of hunger. This is deliberate, and millions have already perished.
Directed by Agnieszka Holland, and a fantastic screen-writing debut from Andrea Chalupa, Mr Jones is a robust but restrained account of what Gareth Jones found. This is a solid piece of film-making, with Holland refusing to sensationalise the events. Reporting back at great personal risk, we learn that Jones’ harrowing testimony resonated with fellow journalist, Eric Blair. Better known by his pen name, George Orwell, Blair’s response to Stalin’s man-made famine formed the beginning of Animal Farm.
Unsurprisingly for a film that celebrates the intrinsic value of writing, Mr Jones’ screenplay is loaded with literary references. In a scene where Jones is invited on a hedonistic night out by New York Times correspondent, Walter Duranty, the Pulitzer Prize winner asks Jones if he has read Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Masque of the Red Death. The journalist demurs, Duranty (a suitably creepy performance from Peter Sarsgaard) explains Poe’s message: no amount of artifice can avoid fate. It’s a small moment, but Chalupa makes sure we don’t miss it. It’s Duranty – who was very much in the pocket of the regime – articulating the slow, constrictor squeeze of living in a totalitarian state.
This biographical thriller is smart, superbly crafted and ties together Jones’ achievement and legacy. Orwell’s Animal Farm is not just a warning from history, but a prescient assemblage of ideas that remain front and centre to anyone with an interest in critical thinking. While the overall tone remains pessimistic, it is the impact and influence of Jones’ words that gives this film its unlikely hero.
Signature Entertainment presents Mr Jones on Amazon Prime Video 10th December.