One of Poland's most eminent filmmakers, Agnieszka Holland ('Spoor'), has long peered through a camera lens into Europe's darkest hours, including her Academy Award-nominated Holocaust dramas 'Europa, Europa' and 'In Darkness'. Now comes 'Mr. Jones'.
Set in the 1930s, the film is based on real-life Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton, 'Little Women'). After interviewing Hitler and covering the accession to power of the Nazi Party, Jones' sights shifted to the Soviet Union and the many contradictions involved in its rise. He sets out on a journey that leads to the discovery of the widespread famine in Ukraine and harsh repercussions for his attempts to report it (such as the mainstream media pouring scorn on Jones' account and reducing him to obscurity).
Jones is the lone voice questioning Stalin's economic miracles. How could the country be so prosperous when the world lay in such turmoil? After being fired as personal secretary to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Jones decides to slip into Moscow to find out for himself. Leveraging Lloyd George's credibility, he travels throughout the USSR and meets Russian politicians, while his language skills allow him to speak to peasant farmers.
His key contact is Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard, 'Loving Pablo'), a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Stalin loyalist, whose lifestyle is somewhere between Great Gatsby and Harry Lime. The verbal exchanges between the two characters are some of the most entertaining parts of 'Mr. Jones', which detours through Moscow's narrow corridors and lavish house parties. The film takes on a noir mood as its lead character digs up clues and meets a femme fatale, Ada Brooks (an underused Vanessa Kirby, 'Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw'), another journalist in Moscow who works for Duranty and who soon becomes involved in Jones' attempts to illuminate the truth.
There's no swinging shindigs nor even any colour here - Holland employs stark monochrome to portray the starvation and genocide as impactfully as possible.
From the well-furnished apartments of the partying rich to the frost-caked streets, Holland paints a vivid picture of 1930s Moscow. Eventually, Jones slips across the border to Ukraine to discover the "Holodomor" and the grim reality of the Soviet Union - instead of fields of plenty and comrades in arms, he finds a frozen tundra populated by the dead and the dying. There's no swinging shindigs nor even any colour here - Holland employs stark monochrome to portray the starvation and genocide as impactfully as possible. In one haunting scene, a sled collecting bodies comes across a dead mother and her crying baby. Jones can do nothing but watch in horror, and desperately try to find his way back to civilisation.
Norton excels as the nerdy Gareth Jones, moral and curious to a fault. His character is the audience's gateway to the Ukrainian famine, meaning we have to empathise with him if we're to appreciate the horrors experienced. Norton oscillates between hero and victim, at times unsure why he's putting the truth ahead of his career and even his life.
A taut and stark thriller, one part espionage, one part survival, the film tells an extremely powerful true story, and one that has generally slipped under the radar - Jones died a largely discredited figure, the truth about Stalin's man-made famine only coming to light years later. However, today he is revered as a national hero in the Ukraine. We are lucky that someone as talented as Agnieszka Holland turned her gaze on 'Mr Jones'.