As if we need further proof that cries of “fake news” are so often the desperate attempts of the complicit to deny their wrongdoing, Agnieszka Holland’s fact-based dramatic thriller Mr. Jones tells the stirring — if often bleak — story of 1930s Welsh journalist Gareth Jones. He broke the story of the Holodomor, a massive engineered famine in Soviet-run Ukraine, only to have his claims declared false by those who sought to champion the Soviet Union’s communist revolution and form advantageous alliances with the powerful nation.
Jones (a well-cast James Norton) is depicted from the start as an idealistic man who’s ahead of the curve on recognizing danger: He’s introduced while trying to warn British leadership about Hitler, whom he interviewed, in early 1933. When he’s then quickly let go from his government job (under the clearly false pretense of “budget cuts, old chap”), he decides to travel to the Soviet Union to wrangle an interview with Stalin. There he meets dissolute New York Times bureau chief Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard) and lovely, melancholy fellow journalist Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby). He also quickly recognizes that the Russians are micromanaging his sojourn, keeping him and other foreign journalists under tight control.
But Jones manages to slip away and catch a train to Ukraine, where it’s obvious that something is definitely wrong. Soviet leadership has been boasting of the astounding productivity of their collectivized farms, but the farmers and townsfoll Jones encounters are starving, and no one seems to care. As he pushes to the heart of the story, he sees terrible things. His life and livelihood are threatened, but he makes it out alive, only to watch his accurate and affecting attempts at telling the world of Stalin’s cruelty crumble in the face of a smear campaign.
Holland, a veteran director of both film and television, tells Jones’ story confidently and affectingly. The film’s script (by Andrea Chalupa) and cinematography (Tomasz Naumiuk) complement each other, helping to build a convincingly oppressive world of stark contrast — orgy and excess in the urban environment of Moscow and unspeakable desperation in the rural Ukraine. Mr. Jones may be a male-centric story, but Holland and her crew tell it with an empathy and insight that are, if not unmistakably feminine, unquestionably human. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Pam Grady: A young journalist goes from hero to pariah as colleagues turn against him after he exposes government-created horrors in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. Polish director Agnieszka Holland artfully recreates not just an era but the fear and paranoia of Josef Stalin’s USSR. Real-life reporter Gareth Jones (James Norton) manages to shake official surveillance long enough to uncover the Holodomor, the Soviet-created genocidal famine that decimated rural villages in the Ukraine in 1932-33. For his pains, Jones not only faces the wrath of the Soviet authorities, but official denials and vilification in Western countries that are eager to normalize relations with Stalin. A meld of historical drama and political thriller, Mr. Jones portrays its protagonist as an accidental hero, someone whose integrity and zeal for doing the right thing will not allow him to let the story go despite enormous pressure placed upon him. Norton is excellent as the beleaguered Jones, while Peter Sarsgaard excels as his chief antagonist, Walter Duranty, the New York Times’ man in Moscow and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his Soviet cheerleading. Holland maintains a tense, uneasy tone throughout in an engrossing film that shines light on a story long faded into the misty past.
Leslie Combemale Director Agnieszka Holland’s award-wining narrative feature Mr. Jones captures the curiosity and compassion that must have driven real-life journalist Gareth Jones, and it’s the portrayal of this little-known heroic figure by James Norton that will most drive the viewer to connect to the film. Intrepid to the point of danger, Jones uncovered the truth about the Holodomor, the starvation of millions under Stalin’s regime in the early 30s. The value and importance of journalism to speak truth to power, no matter the cost, is made abundantly clear. It is a reminder to us all what continues to be at stake if governments around the world clamp down on or discredit those in the media who seek the truth. Both the cinematography and production design are breathtaking, though they leverage an intentionally oppressive palette, and the co-stars, especially Vanessa Kirby and Peter Sarsgaard, add their considerable acting talents to the proceedings.
Kathia Woods Mr. Jones is a timely film that focuses on a topic that we find ourselves once again grappling with: Truth in journalism. As our country is fighting for Democracy, accountability and truth, we too often find ourselves struggling to answer the question ‘how did we get here, to this troubled time in our history?’ Mr. Jones answers this question beautifully — but looking back to another troubled time in history when the subject in focus is the Soviet Union and the historic event is the Ukraine famine of 1932-33. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin Agmieszka Holland’s truth-based political thriller, Mr. Jones. is not only an engaging and timely history lesson about the Soviet sanctioned Holodomor in Ukraine, it is also a compelling reminder of the crucially important role that a legitimate, accurate and accountable free press plays in monitoring and mitigating events that impact the world’s well being. Read full review.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Mr. Jones is a timelier than ever biographical drama about a man few learn about (at least it in the United States) outside of perhaps journalism school classes focusing on foreign correspondents. James Norton is fantastic as the titular Gareth Jones, David Lloyd George’s former foreign adviser who was eventually the first to report on the horrific Holodomor, Stalin’s man-made famine that killed millions of Soviet Ukrainians in 1932-33. As journalism and in particular investigative journalism is denounced as “fake news,” this film is a powerful reminder of what it’s like for a journalist to sacrifice his safety to reveal the truth. Director Agnieszka Holland, working off a script by Andrea Chalupa, has crafted a chilling and beautifully shot (cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk does wonders contrasting the horrors Jones witnesses with the relative excesses of Moscow’s and London’s elite) film that’s equal parts biography, thriller, and history lesson.
Marina Antunes Agnieszka Holland’s new film spotlights the importance of journalism, and particularly journalists who put themselves in danger in support of the greater good. In Mr. Jones, Holland tells the little known story of Gareth Jones (James Norton), a Welsh journalist who travels to the Soviet Union with the intent of interviewing Stalin but who instead finds himself in the centre of a Soviet conspiracy to hide the famine which has grasped early 1930’s Ukraine. Jones stands up against other journalists, Soviet officials and even his own government to bring to the world the evil and dire consequences of Stalin’s Five Year Plan.
Loren King The political period thriller Mr. Jones is another engrossing, intelligent, visually gripping film from director Agnieszka Holland, working from a well-researched script by Andrea Chalupa. James Norton is a dynamic screen presence as the real-life young Welsh journalist Gareth Jones who went to Moscow in the early 1930s to investigate the sudden exorbitant spending of Joseph Stalin’s government despite the Kremlin being broke. As journalists with different agendas in Moscow, Vanessa Kirby and Peter Sarsgaard are among the film’s stellar supporting cast.
A dogged and diligent reporter, Jones ended up exposing the Holodomor — the man-made famine that caused mass starvation in Soviet Ukraine — which led to his murder in 1935. The scenes of Jones making his brutal discoveries of widespread death and starvation in the frozen wasteland of Ukraine are haunting. Mr. Jones is an important historical film that has powerful contemporary relevance.
Liz Whittemore We tried to warn you in 2015. Journalists and writers saw the warning signs and that is why we cried on election night. We saw all of this coming. In 1933, Gareth Jones, a Welsh reporter tried to do the same thing with Stalin and Hitler. He saw the writing on the wall and was crucified by those in power. On the technical side of filmmaking, the sets, lighting, costumes, and editing are stunning. The cast is wonderful. James Norton, our Mr. Jones, is truly amazing. From his quiet to his fear to his fortitude, he gives a powerful performance. Andrea Chalupa’s script highlights the power of money. Mr. Jones begins cleverly with the creation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm; the perfect fictionalized parallel to the times, both then and now. This device is strategically utilized throughout and has a profound impact. Truth and reality can always be bought. The proverbial pigs or rulers will always control their sheep. It’s a narrative that repeats itself time and time again. Mr. Jones shines a light on an importance of real journalism and how one single story can rewrite history.
Cate Marquis The great Polish director/writer Agnieszka Holland (IN DARKNESS, EUROPA EUROPA) reverses the usual case of a male director telling the story of a courageous woman, to tell the story of a persistent young Welsh journalist in the early 1930s. MR. JONES tells a fact-based tale about Gareth Jones (James Norton), who uncovers a secret famine in the Ukraine, and whose discoveries reveal the truth about Stalin and help inspire George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” Read full review.
Title: Mr. Jones
Directors: Agnieszka Holland
Release Date: June 19, 2020
Running Time: 141 minutes
Language: English, Welsh, Russian, Ukrainian with English subtitles
Screenwriter: Andrea Chalupa
Distribution Company: Samuel Goldwyn Films
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Liz Whittemore, Sharronda Williams, Susan Wloszczyna, Kathia Woods
Edited by Jennifer Merin