An Informative and Effective Film about the Discovery of the Ukrainian Famine
Europe in the 1930s is a fascinating time to study and to be a journalist, as one had infinite social and political experiments occurring: from the Civil War in Spain, to the new fascist regime in Italy, the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, and the Soviet Union’s imposition of communism. One of the real journalists of the time is the often-forgotten Gareth Jones, who died at the premature age of 29, but was able to bring about incredibly brave and truths of his time.
Mr. Jones (2019) is the story of Gareth (James Norton), who after being fired and ridiculed by diplomat Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham) for claiming that Hitler was a real danger to Europe, decides to go to the Soviet Union to interview Stalin. There Gareth attempts to use his connections with journalists, like the New York Times’ Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard) in order to get him his crucial meeting. However, in mulling about with other writers he begins to see a severe censorship taking place by the Soviet government, specifically in anyone trying to investigate about Ukraine. Like any good journalist, Gareth risks everything to find out the truth.
The film is centered around the great famine in the Ukraine, which was muffled and hidden by Stalin and which caused the death of countless millions. The event is still seldom known about today, and yet it was thanks to the bold steps of Gareth Jones that it was able to be brought to light. It was the first such story about cruelty under the Soviet regime, which up until then was still being considered by many intellectuals as a promising social experiment. The film even introduces George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) who becomes acquainted with Gareth, and yet still tries to defend the Communist experiment when hearing of the famine. Duranty’s own description of the famine encapsulates this horrid thinking, by saying “you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.” His few eggs referring to millions of hungry Ukrainians.
Mr. Jones is directed by veteran Pole Agnieszka Holland, who has been fascinated with this time period in Europe ever since her breakout film Europa, Europa (1990), which took on the true story of a Jewish boy who passed for a Youth Nazi member. With Mr. Jones Holland is able to properly showcase the difference between debating ideology and politics and actually living it. She achieves this by showing the first half of the film, with Gareth debating with his fellow journalists about the Soviet experiment. However, the film drastically shifts to a cold reality when Gareth goes to the Ukraine and we see examples of how train passengers fight over an orange peel that he threw to the ground, or an entire village of only children who resort to cannibalism to stay alive, or even the entire empty towns, abandoned because everyone else has died off. This famine is all the crueler and more horrible because Ukraine was the agricultural center of the Soviet Union; Stalin was purposefully extracting all the food that was produced there and bringing it to Moscow. These scenes of the famine are then contrasted yet again when Gareth returns to the ideological debate arena, and yet with an entirely different perspective. He regards his food quizzically when sitting down at a lunch with Orwell or is startled to see British children playing so carefree in the streets.
The narrative is told parallel to Orwell writing his famous Animal Farm, which the film is attributing its symbolism of the failures of communism as influenced by Gareth Jones’ work. This editing choice helps give the discoveries that Gareth makes all the more weight, as they are paired with a famous piece of art. Unfortunately, for viewers in Western society, it is hard to care about numbers of dead if they are not linked to something relatable, or memorable. This is thus the genius move that Holland makes for us to be latched onto the story even more.
In the end, Mr. Jones, like the subject it is portraying is a fine and informative journalistic piece. The film does its job in bringing forth incredibly important information that has remained too long in the dark. However, as a dramatic piece, the film might perhaps sacrifice characterization for information. While this is fine by me, it robs the narrative of a certain wholeness that would have let certain events and injustices towards Gareth have more weight. In the end, however, Holland is successful in telling her story and utilizing visual tools to bring justice towards the pursuit of the truth.