Plot: Based on true events, Mr. Jones dramatizes the story of Gareth Jones, a journalist from Wales, who in 1933 travels to the Soviet Union and uncovers the harrowing and unimaginable truth about Ukraine’s Holodomor, one of history’s most devastating famines which took the souls of millions of innocent people.
Agnieszka Holland’s Mr. Jones is two films in one. Part Spotlight – an investigative film into how the truth behind Ukraine’s Holodomor was finally uncovered despite countless attempts to build a false image of prosperity in the Soviet Union – and part The Painted Bird – a sometimes silent, reflective and certainly emotionally chattering account of hardship, brutality and suffering. A mix of two distinct styles, Mr. Jones tries to be both important and contemplative – and could have used a more consistent, focused tone. Regardless, the picture largely succeeds in creating an engaging experience for viewers mostly unaware of Soviet Union horrors.
Thanks to connections to Lloyd George, the former British Prime Minister, investigative political journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton) is able to travel to the Soviet Union in hopes of getting to the bottom of the truth regarding the Soviet Union’s war-financing schemes despite an unpublicized lack of funds. The keyword is Ukraine whose resources are exploited by Stalin while the world stands silent, watching as millions die everyday. Along the way, Jones meets Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), a once-courageous journalist silenced by fear and Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), a Pulitzer-winning American journalist-turned-Moscow-puppet who heads the New York Times bureau in Moscow. After managing to reach Ukraine under Soviet supervision, Jones escapes tight security to visit some of Ukraine’s most oppressed villages where people are left to die, starve and suffer.
The film’s first third is a traditional, quest-for-truth chamber piece of sorts, with nothing you wouldn’t expect from investigative films. Aided by fantastic production design by Grzegorz Piatkowski, the film transports viewers to an era where freedom always came at a price. But the film never truly soars until its second third, when Jones manages to see first-hand what a man-made famine looks like. It’s in these moments of silence that the film really comes alive. Several dialogue-sequences in which Jones encounters multiple Ukrainian families and children are reminiscent of Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird, another harrowing, grim tale of inhumanity caused by humanity. Only then, when the film steps away from trying to sound important, that it does manage to become important – these moments of silent suffering, filmed in exquisite cinematography by Tomasz Naumiuk, manage to speak volumes. One can’t help to wonder if Mr. Jones had been trimmed further and focused solely on Jones’ Ukrainian journey, it could have been a much more consistent and powerful film. Nevertheless, the film’s multiple memorable sequences, excellent production values and top-notch performances, particularly from Peter Sarsgaard who brilliantly captures Duranty’s complicated personality, certainly make it a satisfying watch.
Verdict: A well-made, uneven film that could have used a more focused narrative approach, this Berlinale 2020 entry documents a crucial point in history and remains as relevant today. But only when it tries to show rather than tell, it truly soars.
This review is from the 45th Toronto International Film Festival.