Writer: Andrea Chalupa
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
George Orwell’s Animal Farm is one of the twentieth century’s most important allegorical novels with its skewering portrait of communism descending into chaos. But where did he get the idea? Andrea Chalupa and Agnieszka Holland argue that Orwell’s major inspiration was a Welsh diplomat who worked for Chamberlain and once interviewed Hitler. Mr Jones is a story of disillusionment with Russian’s political new world in the 1930s as one man takes on the might of Stalin.
Gareth Jones is made redundant from his Foreign Affairs post in the mid-1930s but travels to Moscow determined to interview the Russian leader. Posing as a journalist he is restricted to the capital but escapes to rural Ukraine to uncover horrible poverty, cold and a widespread famine that the regime deny. Just why are the other British journalists colluding with a foreign power to hide the reality and what does it mean for the perfect state that Stalin claims to run?
The concept of fake news is not unique to our times and Holland’s film finds plenty of parallels with the modern era. In the context of rising socialism in the 1920s which caught the eye of Britain’s upper classes including the Cambridge Five amongst others, the willingness of UK citizens living and working in Russia to defend their adopted Motherland is not without controversy, especially – as lightly suggested in Mr Jones – they placed ideology over evidence in service of the new world they wanted to be part of.
Star of stage and television James Norton demonstrates his leading man status as the eponymous Mr Jones, adopting a soft if variable Welsh accent and carrying the film with a sensitive portrayal of a man driven by his resolve, first to see for himself and then to report the truth whatever the personal and professional cost. Chalupa’s screenplay is strong on characterisation, and the fluctuating narrative purpose is rescued by the audience’s investment in Jones and Norton’s enjoyable performance.
The film does get lost in its numerous strands and divides itself into distinctly variable chapters that follow Gareth into Moscow society (with obligatory female nudity), his experience in rural Russia which makes Leonardo DiCaprio’s snowy quest in The Revenant look tame, and the later consequences in England. There are too many aspects to keep track of, so it isn’t always easy to keep characters and institutions entirely straight – just who works for who and why Vanessa Kirby’s Ada helps Gareth so readily remains unclear.
The two-hour runtime is a little excessive but Holland and Chalupa have built their story around the tenacity of one man determined, in the years when war was becoming a viable possibility, to expose the truth behind a potential ally’s apparent economic stability and its attempts to politically gaslight the international community. If Mr Jones is right, it was this interesting young man who pulled the scales from Orwell’s eyes and inspired his masterpiece.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October