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If the name Gareth Jones does not raise the same level of recognition as contemporary journalists George Orwell or Ernest Hemingway, it could be because this Welsh writer died very young – he was not yet 30 when he was murdered in China – or because he never turned his talents to novel-writing.
Nevertheless, Jones’ achievements were powerful and important. In March of 1933, the Russian-speaking journalist travelled first to Moscow and then to Ukraine, where he became the first Westerner to report on the Holodomar, Stalin’s engineered famine that killed more than three million Soviet citizens in the region.
Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland aims to shine a light on Jones with Mr. Jones , an unfortunately dour (and, ironically, dimly shot) biopic focusing on just that chapter of his short life. When we first meet Jones he is telling former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George about the threat posed by Hitler, whom he had interviewed in 1933. Of course, George and his cigar-smoking cronies find this notion risible.
The scenes in Ukraine are far and away the most powerful, but we spend too much time in drab rooms amidst smoke and typewriter clatter
The bulk of the film follows Jones into Moscow, where he hopes to score an interview with Stalin, and where he butts heads with fellow journalists (Peter Sarsgaard, Vanessa Kirby) who are either too comfortable or too frightened to speak out against the regime. Unimpressed with information from official channels, he hightails it to Ukraine by train, slipping away from his appointed handler and discovering a land of horrors, including rampant cannibalism.
It’s an important and compelling story, but oddly bloodless in the telling. As played by James Norton, Jones is a serious, quiet student of humanity and its foibles, drawn to fellow writer Ada Brooks (Kirby) but far more focused on the question of what is going on behind the nascent Iron Curtain. He has little time for frivolities, and when Andrea Chalupa’s screenplay dumps him into a louche party in Moscow, he merely rolls his eyes and moves on.
The meandering plot gains traction only intermittently. The film runs just under two hours, having received a significant trim since its Berlin festival debut, when it clocked in at 2:21. Yet it still feels as though a few sections run long.
The scenes in Ukraine are far and away the most powerful, but we spend too much time in drab rooms amidst smoke and typewriter clatter. There’s a strange subplot in which Jones crosses paths with Orwell. The latter advises him: “Speak the truth, regardless of the consequences,” while simultaneously receiving inspiration to write Animal Farm .
In the end, however, we are left with the frustration of knowing that Jones would never get the full credit his work deserved, at least during his brief life. If Mr. Jones succeeds in making the man a little better known to modern audiences, it can declare itself a modest success.
Mr. Jones is available July 3 on demand.
3 stars out of 5
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020