Devoted to the truth
a review of Mr Jones. A film directed by Agnieszka Holland, British-Polish-Ukrainian production, 2019.
January 27, 2020 - Paulina Siegień - Books and ReviewsIssue 1-2 2020Magazine
The story of Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist who in the early 1930s went to regions of Ukraine affected by the Holodomor famine, was not until recently widely known. Admittedly, there is something strange about this fact. Even though tragic, the story is also very attractive for a novel or a screenplay. And yet, it was Timothy Snyder in his famous Bloodlands and Anne Applebaum in her Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine who really shed light on the story of Gareth Jones, bringing his experience into those historical works. It is from their work that the Polish film director, Agnieszka Holland, saw the potential in Gareth’s story for a feature film. As a result, in 2019 a Polish-Ukrainian-British co-production was made titled Mr Jones.
Holland added a deeply artistic dimension to Jones’s tragic story. By doing so, she did not lose the simplicity of the message that accompanied it. Thanks to that we have an indeed extraordinary film, both in terms of storyline but also as far as its message goes. Consequently, the movie is probably one of Holland’s greatest works. She indeed did everything she could not to make the story banal nor overwhelm it with special effects. Instead she presents an authentic record of a few years of Jones’s life. The film starts when the young Welsh journalist is warning the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, and his staff about the risks that Adolf Hitler’s rise to power could bring to Europe. Jones was one of the first journalists who interviewed Hitler, whom he accompanied during a flight from Berlin to Frankfurt. At that time he noted: if this plane crashes, the whole history of Europe will take a different course.
Unfortunately, the British government did not want to believe Jones’s dark prophecies. The next frustration that Jones encountered was in 1933, after he returned from his travel to the Soviet Union. Like his assessment of Hitler and the ambience in Germany, the young journalist demonstrated skills which are valuable in his profession, although still debatable whether it is something natural or something we can learn. Namely, the skill to make a proper judgement.
When Jones analysed Soviet data on the economic development of the new communist state he began to get suspicious as to what were the causes of this vivid modernisation taking place at a time of global economic crisis. He decides to travel to Moscow with a plan to interview Stalin there and learn for himself. Yet, when he reaches his destination, he begins seeing and personally experiencing the Soviet propaganda machine, which operates like the whole Soviet system – a thorough apparatus of repression and coercion. Even foreign journalists, who were also subject to the strict control of the Soviet secret service, could not leave Moscow while their work was limited to little more than quoting press releases issued by the Kremlin. However, once they fell out of the authorities’ favour, they were disappearing, like the fictional character Paul Kleb (an obvious homage to Paul Klebnikov, a journalist who was murdered in Moscow in 2004). In the film, Kleb was a German journalist and an acquaintance of Jones.
During his time in Moscow, Jones begins hearing rumours that Stalin’s modernisation is built on the misery of thousands of villages in the most fertile regions of the USSR, where people are literally dying from hunger while the authorities strip away all of their resources. Jones manages to get permission to make a trip to Ukraine, during which he was supposed to be carefully observed by Maxim Litvinov, a Cheka officer. However, during the train journey to Kharkiv, Jones loses his “tail”, jumps off the train and heads into the depopulated Ukrainian villages on his own. There he witnesses the horrific scenes. Holland masterfully portrayed this part of the film with artistic flair. She used monochromic colours and ambient music, while the sense of what was taking place was presented through poignant images and a morbid song sung by village children. In this way, she avoided portraying the most horrid scenes of hunger and death but without losing the powerful message about the atrocities of the Holodomor. The images of the villages are indeed gruesome and distressing.
In Mr Jones Holland is a master of light and colour. She presents Moscow as a dark and murky city; demonic in fact. Even during the day the offices that Jones visited were semi-dark. And yet, despite massive invigilation some western journalists managed to live the high life in the Soviet capital. Among them was the infamous Walter Duranty, a correspondent of the New York Times, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and later Jones’s main antagonist. Evidently, Duranty was a huge supporter of the Soviet Union and a facilitator of good relations between the United States and the authorities in Moscow. For playing these roles the Kremlin paid him generously. In the country of the proletariat revolution, Duranty enjoyed a lavish bourgeois lifestyle.
Widely trusted around the world, Duranty questioned Jones’s reports from Ukraine, which the journalist published upon his return from the Soviet Union. Even though Duranty admitted that there were some problems in the USSR with food provision, there was no famine or hunger at all. He accused Jones of creating a horrific and exaggerated version of events. Duranty became Jones’s personal rival and engaged with him in an uneven David vs Goliath-like fight. While Jones was a freelancer whose main capital was his relationship with the British prime minister, Duranty was a widely respected journalist who worked for one of the most important media outlets in the world.
In a very explicit way the director provides the viewers with a historical reflection on topics that today seem particularly relevant, including that of post-truth, fake news and propaganda, as well as the role of journalists and the traditional media in influencing the image of the world. The context seems surprisingly familiar, as the catalyst for contemporary discussion on these topics were also the events which took place in Ukraine and which are a result of the Kremlin’s policies; especially its massive propaganda machine.
In some reviews of the film one can read that Mr Jones does not fully explore the atrocities of the Holodomor; it does not explain Stalin’s motivation to implement this hideous policy nor does it offer a more detailed picture of the Soviet Union’s brutal machine. Such voices are a clear signal that there is a large need for films that would further explore Soviet history, as some viewers who saw Holland’s film clearly desire knowledge on the wider context. These opinions, however, should not be treated as discrediting the film as a whole, mainly because this is not a film about the Soviet Union nor Stalin. In fact, it is not even a film about the Holodomor.
Mr Jones is a film about seeking truth as a value of its own. The moral dimension of such a search is the main message that Holland prepared for us. And even though this topic of seeking the truth, providing evidence for it or trying to convince a wider audience to it, is one of the most explored topics in literature and cinema, in Mr Jones it becomes particularly important, mainly because of the historical reality in which the story is set.
The most important clue to this interpretation can in fact be found in the title where “Mr”together with a quite popular surname “Jones”gives us the impression of an everyman. This is the kind of person that Gareth Jones is – an ordinary guy. He is not a pompous character; one that would transfer from a modest journalist into a super hero to confront Stalin. That is not the story of Gareth Jones.
Jones is just an average man. We see him scared, and also terrified with what he witnesses in Ukraine. He is also driven by the need to find the truth, and even if it may sound trivial, Holland manages to depict that with grace, avoiding unnecessary pathos and banalisation. Some reviewers have noted that although the film is good, it could – nonetheless – be better. That is always true. For greater viewer satisfaction, Jones’s story could have become a script for a Hollywood spy thriller with a gripping plot – one that takes place on all five continents. Perhaps the biggest problem that many viewers have with the main character is the fact that he is too average. Yet, in my view, no attempts at making him more “marketable” would change anything. On the contrary, this would completely blur the film’s main message – that everyone needs to seek truth and that everyone has a right to do their work diligently and in accordance with their values. History is made not only by extraordinary individuals, but also by everyday people who can contribute to the common good.
Holland is one of those directors who has her own style and a very distinct method of depicting the world. Apart from the artistic level and the characteristic style which can also be found in Mr Jones, her film language can be seen in her selection of stories which are to send a message to the viewers. With the story of Gareth Jones, Holland reveals her own moral standing in two ways: first, by being on the side of the victims of the Holodomor; and second, by showing her devotion to the truth.
Translated by Iwona Reichardt
Paulina Siegień is a freelance journalist, writing about Polish-Russian neighbourhood and general Russian developments. She is currently working on a book about the Kaliningrad Oblast.
For another take on the film, visit www.neweasterneurope.eu and read Grzegorz Szymborski’s essay: “An unappreciated effort”.