James Norton plays the Welsh reporter who at great personal risk broke the story of the early 1930s Soviet Ukrainian Famine in Agnieszka Holland’s latest deep dive into historical memory.
There’s a devastating historical chapter at the heart of Mr. Jones, in which the title character, an idealistic young Welsh journalist played with calm authority by James Norton, trudges through miles of knee-deep snow in Ukraine, delirious with hunger, witnessing first-hand the horrors of the genocidal famine of 1932-33, known as the Holodomor. The entirety of the region’s grain production was sold abroad to finance the rapid modernization of Soviet industry, with the Stalin regime regarding the millions of ethnic Ukrainians who perished as a price worth paying for the new utopia.
This is narrative territory that fits snugly in the wheelhouse of veteran Polish director Agnieszka Holland, who more than virtually anyone has sought to reckon with the Holocaust on screen. There’s a thematic throughline connecting her early work to the new film’s depiction of the most cynical political manipulation of an innocent people by an oppressive government bent on stifling dissent, using coercive bureaucracy, propaganda, censorship, corruption and strict media control. The echoes of more recent aggression against Ukraine by the Putin government even lend the episode a sinister currency.
The trouble is, that riveting core story is bookended by anesthetizing bloat, in a densely cluttered treatment by first-time screenwriter Andrea Chalupa that simply doesn’t know when to make a point and move on. Even one of the most curious footnotes of the atrocity — that it is credited as part of the inspiration for George Orwell’s dystopian allegory, Animal Farm — becomes a cumbersome frame, returned to again and again with spoken excerpts, draining focus from Gareth Jones’ remarkable story.
For Chalupa, this piece of history has personal significance. His grandfather was born on a farm in Eastern Ukraine and survived the Holodomor, only to be arrested and tortured by Soviet secret police during Stalin’s purges. That close connection appears to have clouded the writer’s ability to pare down the narrative along accessible lines, and neither Holland nor editor Michael Czarnecki has succeeded in straining the lumpy borscht.
The ambitious Jones had already achieved precocious fame in his 20s by becoming the first foreign journalist, while working as an advisor to British statesman David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), to fly with then-newly appointed German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. But his warnings of the Reich’s intention to wage war fall on deaf ears and his job is eliminated due to budget cuts. Still, he parlays a letter of recommendation from Lloyd George into a Russian press visa, intending to reconnect with an investigative journalist there, who volunteers in an ill-advised phone call that he has stumbled onto something huge. But that source is killed in murky circumstances before Jones reaches Moscow.
He gets little help from smoothly shady New York Times bureau chief Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), though an invite to one of the correspondent’s decadent sex, drugs and jazz parties proves an eye-opener. Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), a principled British journalist on Duranty’s staff, is slightly more cooperative, revealing that the regime is suppressing information while she’s too fearful of reprisals to say more.
With a mix of courage and recklessness, Jones manages to slip past the barriers designed to keep foreign journalists in Moscow and under close scrutiny, boarding a train to Ukraine. While it’s fun to see Sarsgaard play a louche character whose outer respectability masks a rotten core, and Kirby as always is a magnetic presence, the movie only really comes alive at this point, when Jones is thrust into a terrifying reality far beyond any of the rumors that have reached Moscow.
From the moment he steps off the train he sees corpses lying in the snow, and starving farmers looking on in misery as their grain is loaded onto trucks. Making a narrow escape after being pegged as a spy, he wanders into empty houses, their occupants dead in their beds, and watches as impassive workers load lifeless bodies onto a cart, including that of an orphaned baby still screaming. His most horrific experience comes when a family of hollow-eyed children allow him to share their meal, learning the source of the mystery meat only after he’s eaten.
Holland draws from Russian avant-garde techniques here and there, notably slapping on the Eisenstein montage in Jones’ traveling scenes. But her most effective device is the tonality of light in the Ukraine sequences, blanketing each widescreen frame with a misty, almost painterly glaze that makes the brutal reality all the more shocking. It’s a far cry from the party line out of Moscow touting “happy and proud farmers,” and the remarkable efficiency of agricultural collectivization, illustrated by propaganda art showing Stalin proffering a bouquet of wheat for the people.
Once Jones is captured by Stalin’s forces, the terms of his freedom are negotiated using the lives of six incarcerated British engineers as bargaining chips to buy his silence. It’s here that he becomes fully aware of the extent to which Duranty, a Pulitzer Prize-winner known as “our man in Moscow,” is in bed with the regime. (There’s a bitter irony in the tidbit that it was Duranty who had Roosevelt’s ear, prompting U.S. recognition of the Soviet Union.) Even back in England, the political establishment is reluctant to believe Jones’ accounts of a man-made famine, not wanting to jeopardize diplomatic relations with Russia. Still, while Duranty gets busy debunking his story in The New York Times, Jones persists in his quest to get the truth out, finding an unexpected ally.
Like the early action, this post-Ukraine section is a muddle of logorrheic scenes that get bogged down in superfluous detail. And enough already with the cuts to Orwell (Joseph Mawle) at his typewriter, at one point seen whittling barnyard critters out of wood.
Nothing on either side comes close to the trenchancy or grim poetry of Jones’ harrowing odyssey, which is as it should be. But there’s also no reason for all the political obstructionism and journalistic frustration to be so windy. It often tends to become visually heavy too, with its monochromatic palette of deep shadows and arbitrary bursts of shaky cam. Well before Jones gets back to his childhood coastal village in Wales to process his experiences amid fresh paranoia-inducing threats, this admirably intentioned but wildly uneven movie — which runs a draining two hours, 20 minutes — has already run its course.
Production companies: Film Proukcja, Parkhurst
Cast: James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard, Joseph Mawle, Kenneth Cranham, Julian Lewis Jones
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Screenwriter: Andrea Chalupa
Producers: Klaudia Smieja-Rostworowska, Stanislaw Dziedzic, Andrea Chalupa
Executive producer: Leah Temerty-Lord
Director of photography: Tomasz Naumiuk
Production designer: Grzegorz Piatkowski
Costume designer: Aleksandra Staszko
Music: Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz
Editor: Michal Czarnecki
Casting: Colin Jones
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: WestEnd Films, Endeavor Content