Mr. Jones – Film Review
by Frank L
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Writer: Andrea Chalupa
Stars: James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard
Anne Applebaum in her book entitled “Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine” estimates that more than 3.9 million people perished in Ukraine in the early 1930s as a result of hunger. As she explains, it happened deliberately as a result of a series of decisions made by Stalin and his regime. She states “In acknowledgement of its scale, the famine of 1932-33 was described in émigré publications at the time and later as “the Holodomor”, a term derived from the Ukrainian words for hunger – holod- and extermination – mor.”
Gareth Jones (James Norton), the central character, was a young reporter from Wales who was a skilled linguist who questioned in the early thirties the miraculous economic figures that were emerging from Stalin’s Soviet Union. The film tells how he managed through his contacts including Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham) to get himself to Moscow to try to find out more. He is tracked from his arrival by the authorities. He socialises gingerly in the milieu of foreign correspondents prominent among whom is one Walter Duranty (Peter Saarsgard) a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist from the New York Times. The film shows a life being led by this clique which is reminiscent of Weimar.
He meets Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby) a composite creation by Holland who is helpful to him in Moscow. Jones is not to be dissuaded from his task of finding out facts by the louche world of Duranty. He manages to slip free of his minders and travels into Ukraine. He sees the Holodomor in all its horrors. However, when he returns to England he is not believed. Neither the authorities in Britain nor in the United States wanted to hear the ghastly facts. They were more comfortable with the Soviet myths that Mr Duranty was peddling.
Andrea Chalupa who wrote the script is the granddaughter of Ukrainian refugees. Artistic licence is at play with for instance a meeting between Jones and George Orwell (Joseph Mawle). It is doubtful that such a meeting ever took place but the dishonesty which Orwell’s Animal Farm describes about the Soviet Union is also on display here in the denial of the Holodomor. Chalupa’s script reveals some of the horror. The scenes in the Ukraine of abject deprivation and starvation are grim.
Mr. Jones is at all times central. James Norton gives a masterful performance in portraying the self-denying, single-minded Mr Jones. He manages to be part of the Muscovite journalist society without being seduced by it. He strikes a sympathetic figure in a deeply corrupt milieu.
The story of the Holodomor shows a silencing of factual journalism by not only the Soviet Union and its politburo but also by the so-called independent Western press. It is a shameful story. It is timely that in an era when independent journalism is again under attack that the dangers of craven silence are shown to have cataclysmic long term consequences.
This is a film worth seeing as the events it describes are important. To tell the truth is often a brave act particularly when it seeks to hold those in power to account. Mr Jones sought to tell the truth. Outside the immediate facts it portrays, Holland and Chalupa have created a film that ought to make its audience consider the perils of manipulating or silencing an independent press which is a state of affairs that is becoming more common in the twenty-first century.