“Mr. Jones,” a new drama starring James Norton and Vanessa Kirby that comes to VOD this week, is a period piece set in the years leading up to World war II but the themes it explores, fake news and media corruption are just as timely today as they were in the 1930s.
The action in “Mr. Jones” begins in 1933 after idealistic Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton) used his connections as foreign advisor to prime minister David Lloyd George to score a sit-down with Adolph Hitler. The resulting story, warning of Hitler’s ambitions, costs him his government job, leaving him free to explore his next story, a proposed interview with Joseph Stalin to discuss the truth of the Communist Party’s five-year plans for the development of the national economy of USSR. “The Soviets have built more in five years than our government can manage in a hundred.” He’s determined to find out how the poor country is funding such large scale technical and military achievements. What is being sacrificed in return?
Upon arrival in Moscow Jones is stymied at every turn. With no access to the leader the journalist, although a teetotaler, dips his toe into Moscow’s hedonistic nightlife scene where he meets the decadent Walter Duranty, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Walter Duranty (Peter Saarsgard), a man as blind to the truth as Jones is open to it.
His search leads him to train, with a Communist minder, bound for Ukraine. Slipping away, he escapes into Stalino (now Donetsk) to uncover the unimaginable horrors of the Holodomor, a famine that killed at least 7.5 million people between 1932 and 1933. “They are killing us. Millions, gone,” says one townswoman. “Men thought they could come and replace the natural laws.”
What had been portrayed in the press as “the breadbasket of the world”—”Grain is Stalin’s gold,” says Duranty. “The 5-Year Plan has doubled the output.”—is in fact a hellscape of death where bodies are stacked on horse carts, abandoned houses dot the landscape and families eat tree bark and resort to cannibalism to survive.
Upon his capture he makes a deal with the devil to ensure the safety of six engineers arrested by the Russian state. As long as he promises to return to England and “tell the truth about what he saw;” to tell stories about the “happy and proud farmers and the remarkable efficiently of our collective farms,” and ensure the world that any rumors of a famine are just that. Rumors.
Back in England Jones says, “I do have a story but if I tell it six innocent men will die. But if I write the story millions of lives may be saved.”
“Mr. Jones” is an unevenly paced but haunting account of one man’s search for truth. At the center of it is Norton who effectively portrays Jones’ steeliness and his frustration at not being able to do his job but it is his time in Stalino that resonates. The long section, shot in desaturated black and white, with very little dialogue, allows the actor to portray the true horror of his surroundings. For the most part he keeps his revulsion internal, there are no hysterics here, just the soul crushing realization of the savagery of the surroundings.
Director Agnieszka Holland is no stranger to this subject matter or time frame. “Europa Europa” and “In Darkness” are compelling examples of her documentation of the worst events of the 20th century. She brings a similar gravitas to “Mr. Jones” and her unwavering sense of outrage at the atrocities is undiminished. It makes for forceful filmmaking but there are other choices that siphon some of the film’s power.
The opening moments, as Jones warns about Hitler’s threat, feel like something out of Masterpiece Theatre but quickly lead to more captivating material. It’s the inclusion of passages from George Orwell’s 1945 political satire “Animal Farm” that help bog down the film’s final forty minutes. Orwell was influenced by Jones’ reporting but didn’t write the book for a decade after the events portrayed in the film and his inclusion feels wedged in.
Despite some slack pacing “Mr. Jones” is an absorbing history lesson with a timely message for today. It’s a rejection of fake news and those who belittle the life-saving value of journalism.