MR JONES – Review
In the early ’30s, a young Welsh journalist named Jones uncovers a secret famine in Stalin’s Soviet Union, a revelation that helps inspire George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” The fact-based MR JONES is a gripping biographical historical political thriller about the little-remembered courageous Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton), but in a way, it is also a haunting tale of the critical importance of independent investigative journalists committed to truth.
Acclaimed Polish director Agnieszka Holland (IN DARKNESS, EUROPA EUROPA) helms the English-language MR JONES, a powerful portrait of courage in truth-telling, inspired by the real-life Welsh journalist Gareth Jones. The drama features a script by Andrea Chalupa and co-stars Peter Sargaard. Interestingly, this film is a reversal of the usual pattern of a men making a film about a courageous woman. Director Holland puts a spotlight on the now little-known Gareth Jones, who also scored an interview with Hitler shortly after he became chancellor of Germany and tried to raise the alarm about Hitler, before traveling to the Soviet Union with the intention of interviewing Stalin but ends up exposing the Holodomor, the infamous man-made famine in Ukraine.
Hard to believe now, but in 1932 and 1933, the political and business leaders of Europe and the U.S. believed both that Stalin had created a “workers’ paradise” in a prosperous but still-new Soviet Union, and that Hitler, the new chancellor of Germany, would not take that country to war. Jones also believed the image Stalin created but what he saw in Moscow and Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, leads to reporting that stripped away both propaganda facades, revealing the ugly truth that no one wanted to hear, and which powerful forces tried to cover up.
The film actually starts not with Gareth Jones but author George Orwell (Joseph Mawle), working on his novel “Animal Farm” in a rural cottage surrounded by wheat fields. It then switches to the young Gareth Jones, although Orwell will return later. Having just garnered wide-spread public attention for being the first Western journalist to interview the new German chancellor, Adolph Hitler, Jones then tries to warn British and other leaders about Hitler’s true intentions. Although many are impressed with Jones’s feat in interviewing Hitler, his warning falls on deaf ears, even those of his boss, former British prime minister David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), a fellow Welshman for whom Jones works as a foreign affairs advisor.
Undeterred, Jones focuses on the Soviet Union as a potential ally in the coming war. Like many others, Jones is impressed with the seeming success of the Soviet Union, although he is puzzled where Stalin is getting the money to pay for his impressive industrial advances. Determined to interview Stalin, Jones makes his way to Moscow, where he finds a strange and contradictory world, where questions are dangerous. He seeks out the New York Times’ Moscow bureau chief, Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), a battle-scarred Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, for help. He also meets Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), a young journalist working for Duranty. Eventually, Jones travels to Ukraine, where he makes his shocking discovery.
MR JONES may not be the definitive biographical film on Jones, and dramatic license has been taken (this is a narrative film, not a documentary) but it is still a worthy effort to put a spotlight on a courageous but largely-forgotten investigative journalist, as well as to remind us of the Ukraine famine known as the Holodomor.
The world’s leaders were cool to Jones’s warning about Hitler, in part because they did not want to believe it. The same can be said of his later revelations about Stalin, although worries about Hitler might have contributed to the efforts of leaders to discredit what Jones reported on the Ukraine famine of 1932-1933. Also at stake were the interests of businessmen who were in profitable partnerships with Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Director Agnieszka Holland brilliantly brings out these forgotten facts, in an low-key but devastatingly effective way. In the notes for the film, the director says she initially intended only to revive the memory of the courageous, determined Gareth Jones but as filming was underway, the connections to the importance of independent, fearless journalists in the present time became increasingly apparent.
The masterful skill Holland showed in layered, complicated films like IN DARKNESS is on full display here as well. Holland’s drama puts us in the midst of murky, tense, complex situations with complicated people but where the political and human reality of what is happening is crystal clear. The story unfolds slowly but the impact is devastating.
Brilliantly photographed by Tomasz Naumiuk, MR JONES is filled with atmospheric period mood, as the script by Andrea Chalupa slowly builds into a tense political thriller, taking us from brightly-lit rooms in Britain and Berlin, to shadowy, snowy Moscow, where the bright lights inside hotel rooms contrast with the dark secrets everyone avoids. This devastating, true-story based drama moves from biography and history to haunting observations about truth-telling and truth-tellers that hit close to home.
The key to much of the film’s impact is first-rate performance by James Norton as Gareth Jones. Norton is a bit old for the role, as Jones was about 27 at the time, but Norton’s boyish face and energetic performance easily overcome that. Courage and persistence are key aspects of Norton’s young Gareth Jones. At the start, Jones is an innocent, bright young man with a promising future, serving as foreign affairs advisor, a personal assistant really, to Lloyd George, but he is changed by what he experiences in Moscow, and then Ukraine, transforming into a toughened warrior for the truth.
The rest of the cast add greatly to this well-acted drama that pointedly focuses on the choices of individuals. These characters are not simple black-and-white figures, but real people – complex, nuanced and fully-rounded – and what happens depends on their decisions that could easily have gone another way. Peter Sarsgaard plays Walter Duranty, the New York Times bureau chief in Moscow, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist that Jones turns to as soon as he arrives in Moscow, after learning that his Moscow contact and journalism mentor has been killed. At first, Duranty seems like an ally but Jones finds that nothing is either clear or straight-forward in Moscow, a shadowy world of secrets and forbidden questions where journalists live in comfort but are forbidden to leave Moscow and are constantly trailed by minders. Sarsgaard’s Duranty is a complex, layered, ever-shifting character, one of the actor’s best performances. Vanessa Kirby as fellow journalist Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), forms a bond with Jones but finds herself caught in a difficult place, torn between a wish to report the truth and great fear.
Unable to get the answers he is hoping for in Moscow, Jones travels to Ukraine, and slipping way from his minder, risks his life as he finds starving people while the wheat grown in the area is shipped to Moscow. Thoughts of the Irish famine are inescapable. Back in Germany, a toughened Jones is committed to truth-telling and releases a statement to the press about the famine, Stalin and what he found in the Soviet Union. Jones is introduced to George Orwell, who is devastated by what Jones has revealed, which influences his novel “Animal Farm.” Jones’ discovery reveals the truth about Stalin but Western leaders, focused instead on what was happening in Germany, push to cover up the truth about Stalin.
This is a historical drama, not a documentary, so there are points where the film departs from history. As an example, at one point, Jones gives as his reason for wanting to visit the Ukraine as a wish to see the place where his mother taught. Jones, who spoke several languages, did have a mother who worked in Russia as a teacher for the family of a British industrialist based in Ukraine but by 1933, when this story takes place, Jones had already visited the area. Other details are changed but the larger story, the important point of the drama, is true, and it is a remarkable, moving portrait of personal courage and persistence in pursuit of the truth.
MR JONES is admirable film, an often low-key but powerful portrait of courage, a moving, worthy drama that both revives the memory of nearly forgotten independent journalist Gareth Jones, and a timely reminder of the importance of truth-telling in these fraught and difficult times. MR JONES is available for streaming on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu, and Fandango Now starting June 19.
RATING: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars