by Symeon J. Thompson
What begins as a noirish political thriller turns into a surreal, survivalist horror in Agnieszka Holland’s Mr Jones, available on video on demand streaming services.
Mr Jones tells the story of Welshman Gareth Jones (James Norton) and his investigations into Stalin’s Russia. Jones was a freelance reporter and former adviser to David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham). He was one of the first foreign journalists to interview Hitler and Goebbels when they came to power in Germany.
Alert to the Nazi threat, and therefore thinking an alliance with Stalin was necessary, he was nonetheless curious about the reality of the Soviet Union. Jones saw the country was on a spending spree in the middle of the Depression and wondered what was going on.
In Moscow he meets the prince of journalists, The New York Times’ man in Moscow, Pulitzer-prize winning Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard). A snake of a human being, dear friend of diabolist Aleister Crowley, host of debauched parties, and advocate for Stalin, Duranty remarks: “Grain is Stalin’s gold”. Working with Duranty’s star reporter, Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), Jones realises something is happening in Ukraine – the breadbasket of Europe. Something the Kremlin wants kept quiet.
Sneaking into the wilderness, Jones discovers the Holodomor, the forced famine orchestrated by Soviet authorities, killing millions by depriving them of food so as to ensure the USSR could finance its ambitious modernisation plans.
Mr Jones is loosely based on the true story of Gareth Jones, but is grounded in the reality of communist dictatorship in Eastern Europe from the 1930s onwards. The film’s fictions have little impact on the truth of its arguments – although it is curious that a film about truth is spun through with invention.
Perhaps it is like its framing device, for the film is framed by George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) writing Animal Farm, with its farm owned by “Mr Jones” and its pigs becoming men as they lead their revolution. Orwell may not have met Jones but he admired his work.
Cinematically, Holland harks back to the likes of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, where the innocent writer investigates a mystery of political proportions. Jones is like a hard-boiled gumshoe desperate to find the truth, to follow it where it leads. He is an outsider/observer who enters into an alternate reality in the hope he can exit it and report back.
This is counterpointed by the likes of Brooks, and a depressed Orwell, who believe the Revolution so important and the Nazi threat so heinous, that they are willing to overlook the eggs broken to make the omelette, as Duranty, notoriously, approvingly wrote.
As for Duranty, maybe he was a true believer in the system, or maybe he was a debauched depressive, delighting in deception and the proximity to power. He was intoxicated with a refined contempt for everything decent and true. He was, after all, a crony of Crowley’s.
Or perhaps it was a blend of it all, coupled with knowing too much, and a Russian-born son who was just another bargaining chip for the Kremlin.
The other world powers were desperate for trade and opportunity in a world going broke. So desperate that they were willing to overlook not only moral considerations but strategic ones. For by sponsoring the USSR, they may have helped their economies out of the ditch but they also created the monster they fought for decades to come.
Throughout the film, and in his life, Jones was focused on the truth. His experiences in Ukraine are filmed like an arthouse survivalist horror and he is haunted by the songs of children. A fellow journalist recommends Poe’s Masque of the Red Death as the way to understand Russia, the implication being locking yourself away from the horror will help you survive for now – but not forever.
This ties in with Orwell – in a conflict between truth and “hope” – in this case “hope” in communism – truth should be preeminent. This is admirable, but truth is often more complicated than a report can capture. It captures some of it, but what of the rest?
Duranty and his ilk, past and present, all rely on “truth” and “facts” spun in the most reasonable way. Countering them requires more than restating evidence, it requires giving them meaning, a meaning that taps into more ultimate truth.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).