The story of ambitious truth-seeker Gareth Jones is one of inspired vigor and rich with modern-day relevance. ￼Jones was a journalist working as a foreign affairs advisor to Prime Minister David Lloyd George. He’s best known for exposing the horrors of the Holodomor, Stalin’s state sponsored man-made famine responsible for the deaths of millions in Soviet Ukraine. Jones was discredited by many of the world’s Soviet sympathizing media but never quit fighting for truth. He was shot to death one day before his 30th birthday.
“Mr. Jones”, a period bio-thriller from Polish director Agnieszka Holland, tells Jones’ story through a ‘cold-hard-facts’ lens. The film takes its time framing its story, spending most of its first half exploring Stalin’s propaganda apparatus and underlining the deception of Soviet stability. But then the movie makes a rather profound shift into gritty, unvarnished survivalism with barely any dialogue but full of haunting, visceral images.
We first meet Gareth Jones (played by a firmly committed James Norton) in 1933 shortly after his attention-grabbing interview with Adolf Hitler. He stands before a group of British cabinet ministers telling them of Hitler’s ambition and warning that the next Great War is already taking form. The stuffy old men blow off Jones’ claims, hardly ready to plunge their country into another world conflict. Discouraged but not defeated, Jones sticks to his belief that a tectonic shift is underway and the truth is being ignored.
Jones takes notice of some unexplainable changes happening in the Soviet Union. While the rest of the world struggles under a global economic crisis, the USSR is experiencing a surge in growth and modernization. Hungry for an interview with Stalin, Jones is able to get a press visa and heads to Russia. Once there he’s set to meet with his friend and embedded journalist Paul Kleb who has information that could validate Jones’ suspicions.
But first he crosses paths with Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), a hedonistic Pulitzer Prize winning ￼￼correspondent for the New York Times with deep connections to the Kremlin. Duranty lives a lavish life in Moscow and is paid handsomely by the Soviet government to persuade the world’s perception of Stalin. Sarsgaard is a perfect fit, slithering from scene to scene, putting off the scent of respectability but every bit of a loathsome snake. A steadily intense Vanessa Kirby plays Ada, a writer for Duranty who doesn’t approve of her boss’ propaganda but is fearful of the power he wields.
From there the movie takes on a much different look, feel, and tone. Jones secures a supervised trip to the Ukraine investigating claims that Stalin had been funneling grain and other resources out of the country leaving the Ukrainian people to starve. He shakes his Soviet chaperone and ventures into the country discovering horrific truths – barren villages, dead bodies in the snow, packs of starving children, and Soviet soldiers with a chokehold on the food supply. It’s a story the world needs to hear, but getting the truth out of the USSR proves to be no easy task.
“Mr. Jones” feels like a neglected slice of history that’s finally being exposed. It’s story digs into a horrifying period that has been terribly underserved on our screens. And considering our current age of misinformation and biased “news”, this film packs a stinging modern-day applicability. I only wish it had plowed deeper into the Holodomor, specifically Stalin’s twisted motivations and unthinkable justifications. You could make a good argument that it would change this into a different movie altogether. But considering how big a part it plays in the story, it needed a more informative framing.
Still, this British-Polish-Ukrainian co-production does a good job immersing you in its setting and leaves you wanting to learn more. Holland and her screenwriter Andrea Chalupa deserve a ton of credit for the glance they give into Stalin’s propaganda machine and their vivid portrayal of the Soviet atrocities in the Ukraine. The latter is the movie at its most potent, avoiding big screen trappings and allowing the camera and Norton’s well-tuned performance to do the work.
VERDICT – 4 STARS