VOD film review: Mr Jones
Bianca Garner | On 07, Feb 2020
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Cast: James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard
In 1933 Welsh journalist Gareth Jones ventured into one of the world’s most secretive countries, the Soviet Union. What Jones discovered in the Ukraine was a man-made famine known as the Holodomor which claimed the lives of millions (the exact number of deaths has unfortunately been lost to time). Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s latest film tells the story of Mr Jones (James Norton) and his journey into the dark underbelly of Stalin’s “Communist utopia”. Mr Jones is a hard watch but it’s essential viewing, shedding a light on an overlooked period in 20th-century history.
The film begins with shots of pigs eating, accompanied by the sounds of their squealing and grunting, automatically conjuring up images of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Slowly, the camera zooms out to reveal a rundown barn surrounded by a field of luscious crops. This image is merely a fantasy, as we slowly move through a window to a room where a man sits at a typewriter. This man is no other than Orwell himself (Joseph Mawle). Throughout the film, Orwell’s narration of excerpts of Animal Farm will be our guide, although at times this narration feels unnecessary.
We first meet Gareth as he delivers a speech to David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham) and his advisors, warning of the impending danger that Adolf Hitler proposes. Jones is also keen to seek an interview with the USSR leader, Joseph Stalin, who has reformed the country through his collective farms. “How?” Jones keeps asking anyone who will listen, “The figures don’t add up.”
Jones travels to the USSR in search of answers, however he is met by a wall of silence and the news that a friend of his has been killed in a mugging. Jones receives very little help from New York Times bureau chief Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), who seems only interested in maintaining good relations with Stalin’s government and hosting jazz parties. Journalist Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby) seems to be an ally, and confides in Jones that his friend was planning on visiting Ukraine before his untimely death. Full of ambition and curiosity, Jones sets out to discover the ugly truth and the cost of Stalin’s utopia.
Mr Jones is a well crafted film with the mise-en-scene used to its full potential to recreate the time period and conjure a sense of terror. Holland pays homage to the Russian avant-garde movement through the effective use of montage and jump cuts to portray Jones’ transition from Moscow to the Ukraine, as he crosses over from civilisation to this nightmarish world. Cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk makes good use of low angles to show buildings looming over the characters, representing the threat of the Soviet government.
The film works best when we are in the USSR and following Jones’ bleak expedition, and it is during this section where the visuals speak louder than words. One can only imagine how horrific this experience was not only for Jones but for the poor souls he encountered on his way. Some viewers may find this segment far too distressing to watch, but, in Holland’s capable hands, it never feels exploitative or melodramatic. The only complaint is that the third act begins to lose momentum as it rushes to tie up loose ends – perhaps Mr Jones could have benefited from being turned into a miniseries?
Norton delivers an exceedingly good performance as Gareth Jones; for long periods we watch him wander through the frozen land, completely alone. His expressions manage to convey so much of how Jones must have felt on his dark odyssey. The supporting cast are also very good, with Sarsgaard stealing the (too few) scenes that he’s in, and Kirby shining in her role. Despite its tough subject matter, Mr Jones is a well worth a watch. With Andrea Chalupa’s script and Holland’s direction, Jones’ story, and the stories of so many poor souls, have finally been given the light that they deserve.