Director: Agnieszka Holland
Stars: James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard
Released: Berlin Film Festival
If you were to take a hacksaw to Agnieszka Holland’s 141-minute-long biopic ‘Mr. Jones’ and cut away a good hour of lifeless political drivel, awkward romantic tension and the unnecessary presence of George Orwell (as a framing device, no less), there is little doubt that the end result would be a brilliant film. Unfortunately, such a situation is only hypothetical, which feels more disappointing than anything else – for buried within these layers of excess story lies a truly amazing tale which deserves to be told.
For those unfamiliar, the eponymous Gareth Jones (played here by James Norton) was a Welsh journalist famous for his publishings on the Soviet famine of 1932. In terms of world-changing writing, Jones is a stellar example of the true power of the media, and the social responsibility a journalist has to the general public. Holland’s film embeds this message faithfully from its very beginning; we are introduced to Jones as he is attempting to warn the British government of Hitler’s rise to power, a grave scene to witness from the perspective of the modern day viewer.
After being released from the Prime Minister’s employment due to a series of budget cuts, Mr. Jones tricks his way past harsh border restrictions to end up in Moscow, where he wishes to interview Stalin about the mysterious source of the Soviet Union’s sudden investment. Jones clearly suspects that something sinister is going on behind the scenes, an inkling that is only confirmed by the secretive nature of the Soviet capital’s media base. Shocked by the lack of journalistic integrity – he is essentially told to quieten down and enjoy the raucous sex parties held by the elite – he begins his one-man quest to uncover the truth.
Reluctant help arrives in the form of Vanessa Kirby’s egalitarian journalist (and Strong Female Character) Ada Brooks, a fictional addition to the story whose well-intentioned inclusion ends up feeling like a bit of an afterthought. Ada struggles through her career despite her talent due to sexism – but we never really get much of an insight into her narrative. As her individual storyline solely depends on her discrimination, she never gets the chance to flourish as a character, instead dissipating into a sort-of love interest for the far more important lone wolf hero.
This is not to say that our hero is unlikable – Jones repeats often that he seeks only the truth, making him an honourable protagonist to all. Unlike the media elite, or Ada, he has no agenda, and believes that journalistic ethics require a neutrality not often found in his profession. ‘Mr. Jones’ works best once he begins to chase that truth, reaching the desolate landscapes of Ukraine, where he documents the conditions that Stalin has been hiding from the outside world. In these sequences, Holland is not afraid to delve into the truly horrific, depicting the effects of the famine with imagery that would not look out of place in a zombie apocalypse. Corpses litter streets packed with snow, as nameless children sing of their hunger, their parents presumably starved, and their own chances of survival slim. When recalling the extravagant parties of Moscow, funded by an abundance of stolen riches, ‘Mr. Jones’ exists as a sharp reminder of the cruelty of humanity.
Holland capitalises on this well; the consumption of food is everywhere in ‘Mr. Jones’, whether it be luxuriously displayed in the parties of Moscow, traded in bulk on the streets of London, or existing only in the form of tree bark amidst the famine of Ukraine. All of this builds into an admirable message concerning our responsibility towards others, even if the segments based outside of Ukraine fall short in comparison, leading to a biopic that makes a perfect statement in an irritatingly imperfect way.