Mr. Jones isn’t just middlebrow – it’s the middle of the middlebrow: core-brow; nucleus-brow. Agnieszka Holland’s lengthy but invariably engaging new film concerns the real life story of Welsh reporter Gareth Jones’ journey to Moscow and Ukraine in 1933 and his discovery there of the Holodomor – otherwise known as the Ukrainian Genocide or Famine.
It looks, feels and sounds like any other historical page-turner, a film in which straight-faced actors say things like “you have betrayed your country!” This is no bad thing. Presented in the inescapable grey-brown color grading of such period confections, it is a worthwhile, at times exciting, and ultimately informative effort if perhaps not a great one. James Norton stars as Gareth Jones, a freelance reporter who managed to snatch an interview with Hitler on board his plane just weeks before the burning of the Reichstag.
The film picks up soon after that night with Jones offering a presentation to then Prime Minister David Lloyd George, for whom he was working for as a foreign advisor, about the threat of the new German Chancellor. Holland – perhaps playing fast and loose with some facts – effectively introduces the man as a mild-mannered and endearing rebel, too young in years to be taken seriously by the old guard while steadfastly providing a polite thorn in their side. It was this personality, Holland suggests, that drove Jones to Moscow where, unconvinced by the stories of Stalin’s economic miracle, he vainly hoped to get an interview with the tyrant.
Holland’s film is particularly taken with that old image of the heroic journalist in a deceitful world. Indeed, that fondness proves infectious in the first act as she teases out the tragedies to come while offering much to admire in Jones’ globe-hopping newspaperman swagger. It is amazing to think of an era when state radio reports from Moscow were taken as fact but such were the times and Holland makes great use of this world of uncertainty and subterfuge, effectively sending her earnest hero down the rabbit hole. It’s upon Jones’ arrival in Moscow that we meet New York Times reporter Peter Duranty (a reliably greasy Peter Sarsgaard) and a love interest named Ada (Vanessa Kirby).
It’s here, however, that the film’s forward momentum begins to sag with Holland’s diversions into Duranty’s world of opium and orgies, as well as Jones and Ada’s romance, proving superfluous at best. The director’s additional decision to cut back and forth to a young George Orwell (who is said to have been inspired by the Welshman’s writing) banging out Animal Farm on a typewriter not only takes further wind out of the narrative, in the context it comes off as vaguely trite. The less said of the heroic, amiable characterizations she offers of Lloyd George and William Randolph Hearst the more we can move on with our lives.
Holland’s film does eventually get to the horrors for which Jones’ name became associated and they are shown in a sufficiently disorientating and dystopian light. At 20 or so of a 140-minute film, however, they are something of an afterthought. Holland is more concerned with the character of Jones and the fake news angle of Duranty’s reporting in Moscow. The film does get at something here with regards to the acceptance and willful blindsiding of tragedy in service of a greater ideal. Or as Sarsgaard’s Pulitzer Prize winning journalist so eloquently puts it: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs”.
The Berlin Film Festival runs from 7-17 February. Follow our coverage here.
Rory O’Connor | @Roryseanoc