Born in Warsaw shortly after World War II, filmmaker Agnieszka Holland has had a prolific career writing and directing for film and television. Her parents were journalists who fought in the resistance. She’ll be remembered for her works centering on the horrors of World War II, particularly Europa, Europa in 1990 and In Darkness in 2011. She also directed several episodes of House of Cards.
Holland’s latest film is a 2019 production called Mr. Jones, which had been scheduled for an April 2020 theatrical release and is now available for home viewing. It’s a dull title, but there is nothing else dull about this film. It’s a based-on-fact story of a young Welshman, Gareth Jones, who wishes to cover world events as a journalist. In early 1933, he uses his position as a foreign advisor to former Prime Minister of the UK David Lloyd George in order to parlay a trip to Moscow. He has interviewed Hitler, and now plans to interview Stalin.
Once in Moscow, he gets a clearer look at Stalin’s repression, not only of the Soviet people, but of the journalists who come from around the world. These reporters are held in a fancy hotel and are distracted by wild parties hosted by the New York Times Moscow Bureau Chief, Pulitzer Prize winning Walter Duranty.
Gareth Jones eagerly foregoes the Moscow highlife. Here is where the story of Mr. Jones takes a powerful turn. Jones sneaks aboard a train and winds up in Ukraine, the Eastern breadbasket state of the USSR. There he is shocked by the sights of mass starvation and intentional genocide. He alone has uncovered what would become known as the Holodomor.
It is here that the capable hand of Agnieszka Holland masters the film’s situation. By casting James Norton as Jones, she sets up a brilliant dramatic arch. Norton, who is known to many Americans as the original vicar of Grantchester and as the brutal rapist on Happy Valley, interprets Jones as an intelligent, truth-seeking innocent. Mr. Jones is the most unsullied person in the film. In a number of the Ukrainian scenes, he is placed in situations with small children. As he interacts with them, the viewer sees that it is Jones who remains the pure one. Even the youngest Ukrainians have lost their innocence. The Terror Famine, as it is sometimes called, took almost four million Ukrainian lives in 1932-33.
The fairly large cast of Mr. Jones forms a sweep from the most untouched by evil, the victims, to the highly sophisticated fabricators who have world influence. Scenes of grain being shipped to Moscow in sacks on the bowed backs of starving Ukrainian men in wintery railyards are haunting. When Mr. Jones needs a coat, he offers a Ukrainian man cash. The man declines. He wants bread instead.
Norton is an actor of renown who, in his mid-thirties, is winning awards and beginning to demonstrate the depth of his talents. He has taken a variety of challenging roles in London’s West End, and he will be heading the cast of the semi-staged production of The Understudy alongside Stephen Fry for two performances at the Palace Theatre on December 7 and 8.
Mr. Jones is a film that mainly belongs to Agnieszka Holland and James Norton. However, the writer should not be forgotten. Andrea Chalupa, who also is a producer of this film, was inspired to write the screenplay by her grandfather, who was a native of Eastern Ukraine, and also by the bold mission of Gareth Jones to expose the horrors that took place there.
For myself, growing up in Amsterdam NY in the 1950s and 60s, where there was a large population of Ukrainian immigrants – some with whom I was very close – the misery of the Ukrainian people was something to cry about. So many of these people had been through hell in the old country.
Mr. Jones successfully blends real-life people with fictional characters. George Orwell even appears occasionally. The second hour includes details of the famine that might shock viewers. Still, when telling a tale of horror, there will be flashes of disgust and revulsion. The truth of the Holodomor should be numbing to all feeling human beings.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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