I’ve always been a fan of journalism film and this film shed a light on a horrifying event that I wasn’t familiar about – the Holodomor, the man-made famine-genocide in Ukraine in early 1930s that killed many Ukranians. The story is told through the eyes of Gareth Jones (James Norton), hence the title, a Welsh journalist who uncovered this horrific, but at the time was unreported genocide perpetrated by the Soviet government under Stalin. Jones was renowned at the time for having interviewed Adolf Hitler, and thanks to his connection with a former British PM, he was able to travel to the Soviet Union to interview Stalin.
I immediately find the film genuinely gripping as well as stylish, directed by Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland who’s no stranger to war-related dramas. Her historical drama In Darkness, set during Nazi occupation in Poland, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film of 2011. The film plays out like an engrossing spy thriller under Holland’s superb direction that makes you invested in Jones’ journey right from the start.
Now, Jones’s original mission was to find out more about the Soviet’s economic expansion, but he ended up uncovering something truly sinister behind the success of the Communist Party’s economic plan. Ukraine was referred to as ‘Stalin’s gold’ and clearly Stalin’s government tried to silence anyone who tried to uncover what happened there. Two fellow journalists that Jones met along his journey have two different reactions. Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), a British journalist, confirms that the truth about the famine is being repressed but she feels it’s too dangerous to speak about it. It’s understandable given an American journalist Paul Klebnikov turned up dead in Moscow while doing an investigative reporting on that topic.
The scenes in Ukraine where Jones saw with his own eyes the stark contrast between the prosperous Moscow and the stark villages in Soviet Ukraine is quite heart-wrenching. Set in the frosty Winter time, Jones was shivering as he walked on foot to see empty houses and dead bodies who have died of starvation. One of the most indelible scene is when he encountered a few kids and they took him to their home and gave him food. I won’t spoil it for you but let’s just say I’d have thrown up immediately like he did once I realized what I had eaten.
The solid script by Andrea Chalupa feels personal somehow, and likely because she was not simply documenting a horrific event in history, but her own grandparents had suffered the Holodomor during Stalin’s regime. In fact, Chalupa had recognized parallels between what’s written in Animal Farm, a seminal allegorical novella by George Orwell (portrayed by Joseph Mawle in the film), which speaks against totalitarianism and socialism. The humanistic approach was palpable and emotional, one truly sees the horrors in Jones’ eyes and his dismay that his story didn’t find the traction he hoped for upon his return. In fact, Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), the rather flamboyant chief of The New York Times’s Moscow bureau whom Jones had met in Moscow, vehemently denied his claims. It’s as if people knew what was happening but because of political and economical reasons refuse to let the truth come out. Worse, some people simply don’t care what happen to people they barely know about and it’s simply easier to turn a blind eye.
Norton is a perfectly-cast as the idealistic journalist who strived to uncover the truth, even risking his own life to do it. Glad to see him in lead role in a feature film, after seeing him in mostly tv work and small supporting roles in movies. He’s definitely got the charisma and talent, so I hope to see him in more films. Kirby isn’t in very many scenes but she was memorable in the scenes she was in; while Sarsgaard is a reliable actor and he plays an unsympathetic character believably.
Mr. Jones is an important story that’s told brilliantly. It’s suspenseful, thrilling as well as emotional, filled with dread when it needs to be, without making the entire film feels gloomy or dejected. In fact, it has a lively pacing and uplifting tone, and in the end it is an uplifting film (though truth comes with a price). The cinematography with bold, dynamic camera work by Polish DP Tomasz Naumiuk is simply stunning and has that eerie, atmospheric feel that’s perfect for this story.
If you’re a history buff, or even interested in a captivating story about a topic most people don’t know about and rarely portrayed in cinema, I definitely recommend Mr. Jones. Upon further research about Gareth Jones, he was inevitably banned from Soviet Union and ended up killed in 1935 by the Soviet secret police. His story certainly deserves to be told and this film is one of the most chilling but effective political thriller that’ll stay with you long after its opening credits.
Have you seen MR. JONES? Well, what did you think?