By Thomas Puhr.
“I don’t have an agenda,” intones journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton) in Agnieszka Holland’s historical drama, Mr. Jones (2019). “Unless you call truth an agenda.” While some write off his stance as idealistic naivete, he is not speaking in an abstract, philosophical sense. The truth, in this case, refers to Stalin’s purposeful starvation of millions of Ukrainians in the years leading up to the Second World War. Jones, who witnessed the famine’s atrocities firsthand, helped blow the lid off what came to be known as the Holodomor.
Many (including United States authorities) were less than quick to accept his account, which begs the question: What are world leaders willing to ignore for the sake of their political agenda, or for the sake of keeping the peace among countries? These are some heady, disturbing topics that should have made for a much better film. Despite its compelling performances and some memorable sequences, the director’s odd stylistic choices from behind the camera nearly derail the proceedings.
Norton carries much of the film, fleshing out his character with nuanced mannerisms (he lifts his glasses and pinches the bridge of his nose when frustrated) and steering clear of the bombastic grandstanding to which such period piece performances often succumb. Peter Sarsgaard’s and Vanessa Kirby’s turns as Walter Duranty (The New York Times’ “Man in Moscow”) and Ada Brooks (a Berlin-born writer under Duranty’s tutelage) buttress this central performance; Sarsgaard is especially memorable as the slimy Duranty, who chooses an oblivious life of drug- and sex-fueled parties over journalistic integrity.
The film’s most powerful section begins when Jones sneaks aboard a train bound for Ukraine. Holland captures her protagonist’s dawning horror by first offering small hints that something is wrong; when he blithely eats an orange in front of the starving passengers and tosses its peel on the floor, they desperately reach for the scraps. As he steps off the train, he nearly falls over a corpse and is quickly put to work loading grain headed for Moscow. His journey behind the Iron Curtain reaches its shocking climax when he stumbles upon a house of orphaned children. Gradually, he (and we) realize that the meat they’re barely surviving on comes from their deceased brother, whose body lies frozen in the backyard.
Holland wisely lets this content speak for itself, without flashy visuals. This is not to say that the Ukrainian scenes are dull; an extended dolly shot of Jones running from unseen enemy fire, for example, is reminiscent of the opening prisoner escape from Jan Nemec’s Diamonds of the Night (1964). Outside of this central sequence, the director makes bolder stylistic choices, exploring tapped switchboard wires in extreme closeup, or casting Moscow’s night sky in a red hue that eerily contrasts with the city’s stark, white buildings. Such images are often dynamic, if not a bit glaring in their symbolic implications.
Unfortunately, other stylistic choices ring false. Exterior shots of a train traveling toward Moscow are awkwardly juxtaposed with stock footage of Soviet-era trains. Holland often speeds the film up in an effort, I suppose, to lend dynamism to certain moments. This approach sometimes works, such as at one of Duranty’s hedonistic parties, but more often than not it just feels contrived.
Especially egregious is a late scene in which Jones rides his bike to William Randolph Hearst’s estate, in a desperate attempt to persuade the media mogul to publish his exposé. This bike ride is presented in fast motion and accompanied by chugging train sounds, as if the filmmaker feared briefly seeing a character on a bike wasn’t exciting enough. It’s an odd moment, one that seems lifted from a Baz Luhrmann extravaganza and which clashes with the Ukraine scenes’ stark realism. It doesn’t help that Antoni Lazarkiewicz’s blaring, Philip Glass-like score accompanies these actions.
Andrea Chalupa’s script works best when, like the titular character, she focuses on the essential tasks at hand. Some of the strongest dialogue involves Jones’ and Brooks’ heated discussions about the nature of truth, journalism, and the price of buying into a political movement wholeheartedly. But just as the extraneous visuals detract from the true story’s inherent power, so do the extraneous plot devices, such as Chalupa’s decision to intersperse the narrative with scenes of George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) drafting Animal Farm. This framing device feels tacked on, almost patronizingly on the nose in its extreme closeups of pigs in the writer’s barn.
Despite these shortcomings, parts of Mr. Jones remain quite engaging and impactful. It’s probably impossible to make a film about the Holodomor completely unengaging, and I appreciated Holland’s emphasis on Jones’ dogged determination (disgraced and shunned by the powers that be, he finds himself writing “culture pieces” for a small-town newspaper before tracking down Hearst). If only the film which precedes and follows his hellish odyssey through Ukraine exhibited the same narrative confidence, visual dynamism, and political outrage.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.