It seems that today for something to be taken seriously they either have to be sensationalised or so stark it is impossible not to take pause and pay attention. Agnieszka Holland’s Mr Jones plays to the latter but squanders its graphic visuals by failing to connect to its central character. An unsung hero bringing light to a forgotten crime, one of histories ignored genocides , it is just as bleak and crushing as it sounds when it focuses on the subject matter and not the man recording it, when it handles the minutiae of Jones’ life outside of his deeds, it doesn’t really know where its headed and who he is.
The year is 1933 and Welsh journalist Gareth Jones has just interviewed Adolf Hitler. His next target, Joseph Stalin, elludes him but undeterred he heads to Moscow to try his luck. However the real story, the one of hidden suffering in the Ukraine echoes like a whisper through the streets of Moscow among the reporters stationed there. Those brave enough to chase it have either been scared off or disappeared, or worse. Either because of youthful naivety or genuine courage, Jones finds a way to sneak into neighbouring Ukraine to learn the truth.
While most biopics benefit from a certain level of devotion to the facts, most accentuate the truth for the sake of entertainment. It’s impossible to watch Mr Jones and see a film that hasn’t been stretched for some cheap thrills. Be it the opium filled parties full of subtle but unnecessary nudity or the addition of audience surrogate Ava Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), an unnecessary romantic foil for a character never in need of one. She represents us but also a profession suffering through the kind of sensorship and voicelessness we see returning. It is all very timely but never important to a plot in no hurry to get started.
Holland takes her time setting the scene, almost to the detriment of her narrative as the opening bombardment of meetings and conversations held in dark rooms and empty buildings sets it apart from a far better and unrelenting middle, one that has the impressive ability to recontextualise an opening that up to that point felt like just another BBC dramatisation. A smartly written tv drama but one we have all seen before.
Imperceptably switching to black and white as Jones gets closer and closer to the Ukraine and the story he finds himself chasing, Holland completely changes her filming style. Full of wide empty spaces, dying trees and barren lands, the famine for which we are forced to witness is engrained in every single shot. From the littered corpses people nonchalantly stroll past to the sight of bountiful amounts of grain being launched into trucks heading aways from where it is needed. The lack of colour gives an almost documentary feel, giving life to a society actively being stripped of it. It all seems too much, another stretch of the imagination. It is a thoroughly damaging sequence and some traumatising direction from Holland.
When the film finally re-enters the world of colour, one where people eat in excess and don’t care about the consequences, the world Gareth and by extension us once knew looks different, almost smaller. Surely here, with the streets rammed with people, this should be the place where people are going hungry, not the empty ones of the Ukraine displayed here. If it wasn’t for Jones’ very real photos, ones for which Holland has clearly used for authenticity, it would all seems so very farcical.
However it is impossible to square this impressive second act with a film actively trying to normalise it by never giving voice to the outrage or shock it should cause. While it is easy to be shocked by the images, the people involved adhere to a prim and proper British, keep calm and carry on mentality that doesn’t fit with the world they are forced to live in. Norton’s Jones is clearly a changed man after and Norton gives a fiercely contained yet stirring performance to show it but the script, by Andrea Chalupa, lacks the emotional drive to really sell the indignation.
Chalupa, for all her morbid appreciation of historical accuracy seems to have forgotten her film is about not just the Ukraine but Mr Jones as well. Not only was he a brave reporter but he was also a victim, not only in how his peers percived him but in what his ‘adventures’ did to him and to forget that fact is to minimalise a story that is clearly important to everyone involved.
There is no arguing that he was an impressive figure, a man ahead of his time able to see the world how it is, not how people want it to be but to idolise him risks forgetting the fact, he is just as much a casualty of a world willing to look away from our pasts in favour of a prettier picture. It all amounts to a film that for all its shocking revelations of a story too soon forgotten, feels disingenuous when Jones is on home turf, because at no point does it really take the time to discern who Jones is outside of what he does.