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.
Pokot is an entry in a recent genre cycle of ‘eco-thrillers’ – and like the Icelandic film Woman at War (2018) it has a central female character. In this case the film is also directed by a woman, the now veteran Polish auteur Agnieszka Holland who has recently directed episodes of well-known American ‘long-form TV narratives’ such as House of Cards (2015-17) and earlier The Wire (2004-8). Actually the directorial role is shared by Agnieszka Holland and her daughter Kasia Adamik and the script is by Holland and Olga Tokarczuk, adapted by the latter from her own novel. Pokot is also, as the title implies, a form of North European genre based on the hunt and the machismo of its male followers. There is a further set of generic elements but I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll put them to one side for the moment.
The central character is Janina Duszejko (Agnieszka Mandat), a woman in her sixties (IMDb calls her ‘elderly’ – harrumph!). She’s a mysterious character with a past who doesn’t like people using her personal name and is quick to correct pronunciation of her family name. I did wonder if this was an identity issue (i.e. a language/naming issue) as other characters stumble over it and repeatedly check it. Someone else at the screening suggested that this might be a hangover of the communist regime in Eastern Europe but I think it is significant that the narrative is located in a ‘contested’ region in South West Poland along the border with the Czech Republic. This is an area with National Parks on either side of the border. Designated a UNESCO ‘biosphere’ the area has plentiful wildlife, which moves across the borders. The local population is Polish but has also historically been part of German-Czech Bohemia.
The narrative covers the four seasons with a short coda. Each section of the narrative has a title card for the month of the year and a listing of all the wildlife that can legally be hunted during the month. Duszejko has a house on the edge of the forest. She has a couple of neighbours, one who treats animals very badly and another she will later come to know better. Her past is not spelt out but there is a suggestion that she has been an engineer and that she worked overseas, possibly on forms of aid work. Perhaps she was a form of hippy traveller? Now she has three interests. She teaches English part-time in the school in town, she explores astrology and she cares passionately about the wildlife in the region. This brings her into confrontations with the hunters, i.e. most of the older male population, and the police to whom she regularly reports the ‘murder’ of animals killed by the hunters and rails against the absurdity of a legal killing one day that is illegal the next (i.e. at the end of the designated monthly season).
This is a familiar thematic of an ‘odd’ character (in the context of local culture) and conventionally, the narrative then provides Duszejko with a small team of potential collaborators who will help her against the strength of the local hunting lobby. She meets a young IT specialist and his girlfriend, Boros (Miroslav Krobot) a Czech entomologist, and her neighbour ‘Matoga’ (Wiktor Zborowski) who also has a back story. Each of these individuals has something in their past which makes them an outsider in the region. The narrative is an eco-thriller on the basis of the struggle to protect the wildlife from the hunters. But perhaps it is more a question of the brutality of hunting and the extension of that brutality across the local culture? I was struck by the difference between hunting in the UK (influenced by social class and the ecological damage caused by maintaining large populations of game species impacting on other flora and fauna) and the more widespread hunting culture in the rest of Europe which is more ‘open’ but more pervasive. I’m thinking about films such as The Hunters (Sweden 1996) or The Hunt (Denmark 2012) both of which share some elements with Pokot. The hunting crowd in Pokot includes most of the men in the district and the ‘club-like’ feel of this fraternity also has links to science fiction/horror narratives like The Stepford Wives (1975/2004) in which the men in a community secretly replace their wives with simulacra/android robots.
But this film also draws on both crime fiction and fairy tales. An older woman who acts as a kind of animal detective investigating the murders of several hunters recalls Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, though the murders themselves might have taken place in the mythical world of Midsummer Murders. There is also a suggestion that the filmmakers have turned to Angela Carter and her ideas about traditional fairy tales – Little Red Riding Hood is referenced and, although I shouldn’t think it is intended, there seems to be a kind of reverse Wicker Man narrative in which the outsider, instead of being sacrificed, turns the tables on the local community of hunters.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative pleasure of the film, but I think most audiences will guess what has been happening re the murders. The coda offers what most of us would consider as a ‘happy ending’ though in the discussion which followed our screening some voices raised concerns about violent actions being condoned because the victims deserved to die. I’m interested in this resurgence of what I have termed the ‘eco-thriller’. Thinking about it, the eco-thriller is a much larger category than I have suggested, but in the past it has mostly been about large corporations threatening to damage the environment and it has linked in to the ‘technology gone wrong’ elements of science fiction or the ‘disaster’ narratives of climate change such as The Day After Tomorrow (US 2004). Pokot belongs to a more defined category in which ecology issues are presented in more subtle ways and lead to more individual actions. I suspect we will see more films like this. I also wonder if there is the suggestion of a new tendency in Polish cinema in which Poles who have been abroad and returned home bring a new perspective to life in modern Poland. I was reminded of my experience of watching The Birds Are Singing in Kigali (Poland 2017), a very different film dealing with PTSD suffered by a central character on her return from Rwanda.
Mainstream Polish films are getting released in the UK, targeting the large Polish diaspora community, but more art-orientated films are harder to find. Pokot is available on a Region 2 DVD. One last trivia point, Tomasz Kot, the star of Cold War (Poland 2018), which made £1 million at the UK box office, plays the town’s prosecutor in Pokot.
Mother Joan of the Angels is a sort of sequel to The Devils (UK, 1971), Ken Russells’ hysterical and extravagant adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon (1952) which was based on actual events that occurred in the 1630s. ‘Sequel’ because it deals with the aftermath of Grandier’s (Oliver Reed) death although it is based on Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz’s novella written in 1943 whilst incarcerated in a concentration camp. The stylistic contrasts between the film could not be more striking as director Jerzy Kawalerowicz and Tadeusz Konwicki’s adaptation eschews full frontal representation of sexual repression in favour of restraint. The stylisation in the earlier film is through Jerzy Wójcik’s stark and beautiful black and white cinematography and some striking set pieces.
This version of the ‘devils of Loudon’ focuses more on the conflicted, unworldly Father Suryn, who arrives to exorcise Mother Joan, rather than the sexual repression of the nuns. Mieczyslaw Voit’s haunted performance as Suryn makes it clear from the start that he is unlikely to be up to the task. In one heavily stylised scene he asks a local rabbi for help: the conversation between the two, where each character (both played by Voit) occupy the same space in the frame after the edit, emphasises the priest’s inner conflict. The rabbi asks if the devil ruled the world it would explain why there is so much evil.
Unlike the elaborate design (by Derek Jarman) of Russell’s film, the setting is a muddy and pitted expanse of ground between the locals’ inn and the convent. In the middle there’s a burnt out stake, that saw the last of Grandier, that is a reminder of the Church’s violence. Unsurprisingly the Catholic church condemned the film but the Polish authorities were happy with its anti-religious stance; Cannes awarded it the Special Jury Prize.
Apparently this is Kawalerowicz’s most stylised film as he was, predominantly, a commercial filmmaker; he’d made Night Train a couple of years before which is equally good. Mother Joan of the Angels is brilliant on so many levels: direction, performance, mise en scène and the portrayal of the psychological damage that religion can wreak. What stands out, however, is the chiaroscuro cinematography that seemingly effortlessly presents a real space as abstract.
My response to Pawlikowski’s films has been mixed, I positively disliked The Woman in the Fifth (FrancePoland-UK, 2011) but can’t remember why. However both Ida and Cold War are undoubtedly excellent. Stylistically the new film is more self-consciously ‘arty’ than Ida and both feature beautiful cinematography by Lukasz Zal. Cold War‘s also narratively elliptical with the audience left to fill in missing bits; such as how Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) establishes himself in Paris. The focus in on his relationship with the luminescent Zula (Joanna Kulig, remarkably only five years younger than Kot when she seems much younger in the film), that is not so much caught up in the Cold War as in fighting their own temperaments.
The film spans 1949 to the early ’60s and so the borders created by the Cold War do act as barriers between them but their relationship would have probably been as fractured, though intense, in other times.
As in Ida, Pawlikowski uses the Academy Ratio that, with the startling black and white cinematography, gives the film an old fashioned look. The scenes in the ruined church reminded me of Ashes and Diamonds and the scenes in Paris, particularly, evoke the nouvelle vague. However, there’s no doubt that this is a 21st century film possibly because it is not particularly concerned with the politics of the time.
There are numerous bravura compositions: in one scene, where a Party conformist praises Wiktor for his ethnographic work in Polish folk tradition, the use of a mirror is disorientating; it looks as though he is standing behind them but is in front. The camerawork that captures Zula’s joie de vivre when she dances to ‘Rock Around the Clock’ is brilliant. The way the music, song and dance, is shot also suggests a modern aesthetic; they are allowed to run without being constantly ‘sutured’ into the narrative by eyeline matches from characters (in other words: the shots of the audience reaction to the performance are few).
A review in the right-wing Daily Telegraph unsurprisingly thinks the film equates the east with repression and the west with freedom; Wiktor, for instance, plays jazz in Paris. It’s certainly not that straightforward. The focus on the folk music suggests where authentic experience lies, the Polish Communist party wants to use it for political purposes, and the authorities are not keeping Zula and Wiktor apart. Pawlikowski has said he based the protagonists’ relationship loosely upon his parents’ and the ‘cold war’ is as much enacted between them as in the social context.
Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot are brilliant in the lead roles and the music is sensational: a proper melodrama where it (almost) takes centre stage. Marcin Masecki’s arrangements of the Polish folk song into different idioms ‘Dwa Serduszka’ (‘Two Hearts’) signifies the emotional development of the characters. There isn’t a soundtrack album but someone has put together a Spotify playlist.
Is one of the best films of the year so far.