Directed by Agniezska Holland, Mr Jones first appeared at Berlin a year ago to mixed reviews. I tried to book seats for one of its London Film Festival screenings but they must have sold out in minutes and I couldn’t get in. UK distributor Signature Entertainment, which usually goes straight to DVD/download after only a few theatrical screenings, opened slightly more widely on Friday 14th February. Bradford has significant Polish and Ukranian communities so it was good to see it at the National Media Museum. One of the causes of complaint at Berlin was that the film was too long at 141 minutes. The version we were shown appears to have been shorn of around 22 minutes and the press release gives 119 mins.
The film is based on the true story of Gareth Jones a young Welshman who in 1933 following a Cambridge degree in Russian had managed to get taken on as an ‘adviser’ to the ex-Prime Minister David Lloyd George and in that capacity to travel to Germany to interview Hitler and Goebbels after the Reichstag fire. But on his return to the UK he was unable to impress upon Lloyd George and his cronies the danger that Germany now posed. Undeterred he then pressed to be sent to Moscow to interview Stalin. But instead he found himself released from Lloyd George’s service. He decided to go to Moscow anyway. Later it is revealed that his mother had spent some time teaching in Ukraine and this is why Gareth was inspired to study Russian.
The film was written by Andrea Chalupa, whose website reveals that she is a history scholar in the US. Her Ukrainian grandparents survived Stalin’s theft of grain from Ukraine which caused the deaths of millions from famine. She first turned family history material into a book on George Orwell and Animal Farm which she argues has links to Gareth Jones and his visit to Moscow and Ukraine. In fact the narrative begins with Orwell (Joseph Mawle) typing the first few lines of Animal Farm by a window which offers a view of a sea of grain and a barn. This is the first of Holland’s devices which contest ideas about realism. The script also later invents a meeting between Orwell and Jones around the time when Orwell’s first book Down and Out in Paris and London was published in 1933. I’m not sure what Chalupa means when she claims that Animal Farm was a ‘gift’ to her family but I think she is referring to Orwell’s analysis of how Stalinism betrayed the Republicans and the Trotskyist or anti-Stalinist fighters of the POUM during the Spanish Civil War – and thus supported the critique of Stalin’s terror in the 1930s. It is the Orwell passages that some reviewers objected to in the Berlin screenings of the film. I suspect that some of them have been cut in the new print. I hope this doesn’t mean another case of ‘suppression’. What is clear though is that the film script shifts the timescale of events to create its narrative. Orwell’s Spanish experiences were not published until 1938 in Homage to Catalonia. He was actually in Spain from December in 1936 until June 1937.
The film is in three main sections. In the first Jones (a fine performance by James Norton) gets to Moscow and is disturbed by several of the situations in which he finds himself. In the second he finds himself on his way into ‘the Ukraine’ as it was known in English at the time. He experiences the horrors of the famine and perhaps discovers the village where his mother worked. In the third section he is back in Wales, still trying to get people to listen to his story. I don’t want to offer any more plot details as I found the film exciting and absorbing to watch. Since I don’t think many audiences will have come across Jones before (I hadn’t), the drama is not like many biopics in which we know the narrative highlights already. The film’s exposure of Stalin’s Soviet Union is still in parts a contested story even if we know aspects of the history. For the Ukranians it is, of course, a story they want people to know about. On this score I was surprised by some of the reviewers at Berlin who displayed some alarming gaps in their historical knowledge. One or two quite well-known critics refer to Lloyd George as the UK ‘Foreign Secretary’ and one even makes him Prime Minister. In 1933 the UK had a ‘National Government’ – a form of coalition led by the previous Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald. Lloyd George had not held any kind of government office since 1922 although he did become ‘Father of the House’ (the longest continuously serving MP) in 1929. However, Lloyd George still had resources and a name known throughout Europe as the British Coalition Prime Minister and Wartime Leader from 1916-18. He is played in the film by Kenneth Cranham.
Some of the ‘real’ historical characters in the story are given credits and descriptions of what happened to them in the end titles. One of the most extraordinary was the New York Times journalist Walther Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), an Englishman who moved to Paris after Cambridge and eventually stationed himself as an American in Moscow, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1932. Gareth Jones’ meetings with Duranty and the subsequent events are an important part of the story. The third major character in the film is Ada Brooks, a journalist from Berlin (her nationality is not clear) who appears to be working with Daranty but who then becomes a potential romantic interest for Jones. This insertion of a ‘love interest’ could have worked out badly but as played by Vanessa Kirby seemed to work well. (I hadn’t seen Ms Kirby before, but she is well-known from the Netflix serial The Crown and other TV and mainstream cinema roles.)
Mr Jones is a shocking story but it is also an accomplished film. I’ve mentioned the director and leading players but I want also to pick out Tomasz Naumiuk, the Polish cinematographer who I note also shot the the Polish scenes for High Life by Claire Denis. The depiction of the Ukranian famine in the snow is remarkable with a very reduced palette of white and gray and dark greens and browns. There are other visual ‘devices’, all of which worked for me but I can see might irritate some audiences. What we can say is that this is not a conventional historical drama. I also liked the music score by Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz who also scored Agnieszka Holland’s earlier films In Darkness and Spoor and the editing by Michal Czarnecki, another former collaborator with Holland. I do see, however, that the film is a co-production with some of the possible drawbacks of the constraint to shoot in certain territories for funding purposes. The British partner in this case is Creative Scotland and Edinburgh has to become 1930s London and I presume the Welsh scenes are also shot in Scotland. The rest of the film was shot in Ukraine and in Poland with support from local funding schemes in Krakow and Silesia. I think that the film’s strong qualities of performance, direction and cinematography do manage to overcome any uneven moments created by the locations. (Some of you will note a Routemaster bus from the 1950s-60s in the trailer below.) The horror of the Ukrainian famine is known as the Holodomor and this film portrays the story of that horror vividly with real integrity. Do try and find it on the big screen. Otherwise it is widely available on download.