MOVIE OF THE WEEK June 26, 2020: MR. JONES

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motw logo 1-35As 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.

FILM DETAILS:

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

Trailer

Official Website

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

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Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).