Very interesting subject matter and good performances don’t stop Mr. Jones from being too disjointed to be as gripping and impactful as it perhaps could have been.
The titular Mr. Jones is Gareth Jones (played by James Norton), a brave and determined Welsh journalist in 1933, eager to discover the truth of what was really going on in a world where conflict broiled barely under the surface. After interviewing Hitler and garnering some fame, Jones’ sights shifted to the Soviet Union and the many contradictions involved in its rise, setting out on a journey that lead to the discovery of the widespread famine in Ukraine and the resultant repercussions of his attempts to report it.
This is an extremely powerful and interesting true story, and one that has generally slipped under the radar, so when someone as talented as Agnieszka Holland takes the helm of a project like this, expectations rise. Holland has captured the stark and horrible realities of war multiple times before and is a very versatile director, but this film suffers from not being quite sure what it wants to be. An odd framing device featuring George Orwell (played by Joseph Mawle) is merely the beginning of the disjointedness as the film attempts to tell its story in multiple different ways, none of which are quite given enough time to truly develop.
James Norton is an always engaging presence as Jones. He is given the necessary iron-willed conviction and sincerity of a man always out of place in a world where everyone has an ulterior motive. His quest for the truth leads him to Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), The New York Times’ man in Moscow, played in full slimeball mode by Sarsgaard, who is on excellent form here. The two characters’ exchanges are some of the most entertaining parts of the film, which gets lost in Moscow’s cramped corridors and lavish house parties for a time, taking on a noirish sensibility as its lead character searches out clues.
This goes as far as to insert the film’s very own femme fatale, Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), another journalist in Moscow who works for Duranty and who soon gets sucked into Jones’ attempts to delve beneath the surface. Unfortunately, the film stumbles when it attempts to blend these elements with a depiction of the true atrocities that Jones is attempting to uncover, and that central point gets a little lost amidst the loud jazz and the flirting. Once Jones is truly brought face to face with the famine, Holland employs stark monochrome to portray the starvation and death as impactfully as possible, and it is genuinely affecting. This is Holland in her wheelhouse, and as a result, it’s the best, and most valuable, part of the film.
The problem is the stodgy pacing and uneven storytelling mitigate its impact somewhat, and the sensation that Mr. Jones is a case of ‘what might have been’ only grows. When the film actually wrestles with its central themes, portraying Duranty’s Soviet apologist against the realities of the famine, the story has genuine power, it just doesn’t do that often enough in anything more than broad strokes. Much like its undaunted main character, it could do with being braver. Instead, it’s worthy, without being as memorable as it ought to be.
Dir: Agnieszka Holland
Scr: Andrea Chalupa
Cast: James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard, Kenneth Cranham, Joseph Mawle, Krzysztof Pieczyński
Prd: Andrea Chalupa, Stanislaw Dziedzic, Angus Lamont, Egor Olesov
DOP: Tomasz Naumiuk
Music: Antoni Lazarkiewicz
Country: Poland, UK, Ukraine
Run time: 141 mins
Mr Jones is in Cinemas and to Buy from 7th February 2020