It’s the most unremarkable of names, Jones, yet the journalist of the title is at the centre of an extraordinary story and, indeed, had one to tell of his own. Writing in the 1930s, Gareth Jones reputedly provided George Orwell with the inspiration for Animal Farm. But Agnieszka Holland’s Mr Jones goes along with the story, it concentrates on a much bigger one, one that’s simultaneously about a horrific yet lesser known corner of pre-WWII history, and does it in passionate style.
Jones (James Norton) has made his name by interviewing Hitler, a meeting which has convinced him that war was inevitable in Europe. Now his aim is to come face to face with fearsome dictator, Stalin. Securing the necessary visa, he makes it to Moscow, but getting the interview proves difficult so, escaping the surveillance that goes with being a foreign journalist in the USSR, he travels to the Ukraine where he discovers that all is not as portrayed to the Western world. The Soviet breadbasket is in the grip of famine, people are starving and dying en masse, but when the authorities catch up with him, he’s only allowed to return home if he sticks to the official line .
Holland tells her fascinating and unexpectedly contemporary story in a style reminiscent of David Lean – a clear eyed focus on narrative with little in the way of sub-plot, a complex and conflicted central character and visuals of the Ukrainian winter that hark back to Doctor Zhivago. The blindingly white panoramas with their tiny black figures cry out for the big screen treatment, and are made all the more powerful by their lack of romance. This is a harsh landscape, a bitter one with the bone cutting cold of Pawlikowski’s Ida and its shivering use of black and white.
But Holland is inventive and, at times, teasing with her colour palette, shifting from black and white to colour to enhance the story almost at whim. Opening in black and white, the scene evolves seamlessly into colour but, as the film progresses, monochrome sequences are highlighted with a splash of significant colour. Fleeing the Soviet agents, Jones is inside a cattle truck packed with starving locals travelling across the Ukraine. It’s all in black and white. Except for the rosy apple he pulls out to eat, something all the others stare at with envy, anger and resentment. They would kill just for the core he throws away.
It’s a carefully constructed story, one that starts with Jones’ warning about Hitler falling on deaf ears and comes full circle with the diplomatic crisis caused by his speech about Ukraine. And it’s told at a steady, unhurried pace which, while it might seem overlong at times, allows the audience time to consider the narrative – one that they’re probably hearing for the first time – and appreciate everything else unfolding before their eyes. James Norton gives a career best performance as the idealistic and sometimes naive Jones, who still has more than enough nous to keep his head above water, while Vanessa Kirby eschews the glamour and kick ass style of recent roles to play a fragile and haunted colleague, damaged by her upbringing and the death of her latest partner, probably at the hands of the Soviets. There’s also a deeply sinister turn from Peter Sarsgaard as the New York Times’ Moscow bureau chief, a Stalin apologist and a master of self-preservation.
The release date for Mr Jones, slap bang in the middle of the awards season, means it would be all too easy for the film to slip under the radar. That it’s released on digital on the same day will hopefully mean that, over time, it reaches a larger audience – because it deserves it. Absorbing, beautifully constructed and shot, it’s a startling reminder that the past can be as relevant and familiar as something happening right now. And that our memories can be dangerously short.
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Drama, History | Cert: 15 | Signature Entertainment| UK, 7 February 2020 | Dir. Agnieszka Holland | James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard, Kenneth Cranham.