Directed by Agnieszka Holland, MR. JONES is the largely untold real-life story of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones and a slow-moving and chilling historical drama. Set in the early 1930s, MR. JONES excels by telling the story of Jones’s perilous venture into Ukraine, which led to Jones becoming the first Western journalist to widely expose the truth about Stalin’s genocidal famine.
James Norton, star of Grantchester and Happy Valley, provides a sympathetic performance in the lead role as well as a convincing South Wales accent. Other stars include Peter Sarsgaard as Walter Duranty, a sinister and creepy pro-Stalin correspondent based in Moscow, who flatly denies all of Jones’s accusations. Vanessa Kirby is also present as Ada Brooks, a colleague of Duranty who befriends Jones upon his arrival in Moscow. MR. JONES is historically accurate, for the most part, but occasionally lends itself some creative freedom by inventing the presence of Ada. The film also follows novelist George Orwell (Joseph Mawle), who was inspired by Jones to write the best-selling novel Animal Farm; many have speculated whether the pair actually met in real life.
Before investigating the truth about the Soviet famine, Jones had previously made a name for himself by becoming one of the first journalists to interview Hitler. With the interview taking place aboard a flight across Germany, Jones famously reported, “If this aeroplane should crash, then the whole history of Europe would be changed.” MR. JONES sees him use his handy Westminster contacts, including David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), to acquire an official visa and travel to Moscow to interview Stalin. He is kept under strict surveillance by Duranty and, after attending a dubious sex-crazed party with Duranty’s cynical ex-pat colleagues, Jones befriends Ada. The pair hatch a plan for Jones to escape the restrictions of Moscow. At first, MR. JONES seems like a standard Soviet-era historical adventure but, when Jones boards a train to Ukraine, the film really takes a more original path, with Holland’s bold direction making it exceptionally eerie.
Jones begins his journey as a rather naïve intellectual type, who has a habit of reciting Welsh poetry and is not fully aware of the situation. A powerful scene sees him eating fruit, unaware that the entire train carriage is watching him with envy. Soon enough, he is forced to flee and is left stranded in the snowy Ukrainian wilderness. What is particularly frightening is that he does not necessarily know the extent of the Soviet famine, and this adds to the horror as Jones slowly discovers body after body, before experiencing the psychological torment of hunger.
MR. JONES is split into two parts; the first depicts his dangerous flight to Ukraine and the horrors he witnessed there. The second, less powerful, tells of the denials by Duranty and other senior figures when Jones returns from Ukraine and his determination to tell the truth. James Norton portrays Gareth Jones as a likeable hero with a good heart; he is still a boy far away from his hometown of Barry. More importantly, it shines a spotlight on the largely untold story of the man-made famine that killed several million people. With its tense and chilling cinematography, it is a film that sticks with you long after the titles finish.