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.
This was my fourth selection from my MUBI free trial and I realised that I’ve been waiting to see it since my first encounter with Mészáros Márta’s films in Kolkata in 2009. Mészáros, born in 1931, is one of global film’s major directors of documentaries and fiction features but it is difficult to see her films in UK cinemas. (Second Run, the East European specialist DVD label in the UK, do have this Mészáros film on offer, but none of the director’s other films.) Diary For My Children is an important film for several reasons. According to John Cunningham in his Hungarian Cinema book (Wallflower 2004) it was the director’s most popular film in her home market. It was also very controversial with its release delayed by two years because of problems with the Hungarian censors (because it portrays the ‘Stalinisation’ of Hungary in the late 1940s?). Mészáros had always been more popular in the international market up to this point and the film did win the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1984. It was also an important personal statement for the director as a semi-autobiographical film and the first of a four-part series of films over the next 15 years.
The central character is Juli, a teenage young woman flying back to Budapest in 1947 from the Soviet Union. Like Mészáros herself, Juli was born in Hungary and then taken to the Soviet Union as a child. Her mother is dead and she doesn’t know what has happened to her father. She is accompanied by an older couple who were friends of her parents and in Budapest she will be fostered by Magda, someone else who knew her parents and who is now in a senior position in the Hungarian Communist Party.
I enjoyed the film very much. Juli is played by Zsuzsa Czinkóczi. She had been a child star and had appeared in three films for Mészáros and two for Márta’s former husband Jancsó Miklós. Czinkóczi was 15 when Diary was completed. In the narrative she ages from 15 to 21. It is an extraordinary performance and it is because of her performance that I sometimes felt that I was watching a 1960s New Wave film. Juli has that mixture of vitality and confidence mixed with moments of immaturity and vulnerability that I associate with the young women of 1960s films. She finds herself living in the midst of Party privilege in a large house taken from the bourgeoisie. She is enrolled in the top school in Budapest. But she doesn’t want either of these privileges. Instead she wants to find out what has happened to her father and her other relatives. Magda keeps her on a very tight rein and she has to ‘borrow’ Magda’s pass to indulge her only vice – bunking off school to go to the cinema. Meanwhile, around her, the Stalinists increase their control over Budapest. I felt at a disadvantage because of my limited knowledge of Hungarian politics in 1947-49. At one point, Magda is firm in condemning Tito, the communist leader of Yugoslavia who broke away from the USSR, leading to banishment from the Cominform – the association of socialist states. Magda preaches the Stalinist line promoted by Rákosi Mátyás, the Hungarian leader whose image is central to government events in Budapest alongside those of Lenin and Stalin.
As the film’s title suggests, it is like a personal diary. Juli’s ideas, her fears and her desires are central and we see the political environment in the background. It isn’t until she begins digging that she uncovers clues to what happened to her parents. She has her own intimate memories which Mészáros inserts into the narrative without any warnings or clues. These are scenes that Juli is remembering or daydreaming about when she sees her father in a quarry selecting stone and working on a sculpture or when she accompanies her pregnant mother to the hospital. These are personal memories for Mészáros and she emphasises this by casting the Polish actor Jan Nowicki as both Juli’s father during the dream/memory sequences and János, her father’s friend who escaped to France in the 1930s but returned to Hungary after 1945. Mészáros later married Nowicki. Diary was photographed by Jancsó Miklós Jr., her son from her second marriage to the director Jancsó Miklós, perhaps the best-known Hungarian filmmaker of the period.
Little sense of Hungary as a defeated Axis supporter came across to me, but perhaps that is the point – everyone has to survive in the new system and the past is quickly forgotten if bringing it up would mean criticising the Russians. János does talk about the war and the (British?) air raids which killed his wife and disabled his son. He will become the character through whom Juli learns about the past. Juli’s ‘adopted’ grandparents are an odd couple. The man does provide Juli with some clues about the past, but the woman is a very sketchily-presented figure.
Juli’s story is in one sense a ‘coming of age’ story, though some of the most common elements of that genre are not followed up and the story is complicated by the political struggle. Juli changes when the evidence of how the system really works is brought home to her. At other times she does the kinds of things teenagers do. She has a boyfriend who she met at school, but she tells him from the start that she doesn’t love him. What she wants at this time is a friend of her own age. Mészáros Márta is an immensely important female filmmaker but there have been debates about the extent to which Diary for My Children is a feminist film. In one sense, simply making the film in the patriarchal Hungarian system, which still seems to have prevailed in the 1980s, is a feminist statement. In the next film in the series, Diary For My Lovers (1987) Juli travels to Russia to go to the Moscow Film School because the film schools in Hungary don’t admit women. This is again an autobiographical statement. Here is an extract from an essay by Catherine Portuges on the Second Run website (the full essay comes with the DVD):
. . . the film is neither purely fictional nor entirely autobiographical, nor, for that matter, strictly speaking a product of what has been called ‘women’s cinema’. Rather, by maintaining an intricate balance between personal exploration on the one hand and historical investigation on the other, Mészáros’ cinematic method transforms and expands its autobiographical dimension by alternating sequences in which the historical context, marked by the use of archival footage, is dominant. This structure positions the viewer in a way that avoids both the more complete distancing of documentary and the more individually-motivated conventions of autobiographical cinema. . . . Diary for My Children transcends traditional categories of genre, yet it functions as a kind of history . . . in which different angles of vision operate to analyse micro-history in order to generate ideas about a larger, macro-historical vision – a private message, in other words, which, in the public mind, becomes a collective one. (Catherine Portuges is the author of Screen Memories: The Hungarian Cinema of Marta Meszaros (Women Artists in Film), John Wiley and Sons, 1993
This is quite a persuasive argument, though for me the archival footage wasn’t so noticeable until towards the end of the film, by which time Juli is ‘aware’. In fact, I identified with Juli so strongly that the division didn’t really bother me. Juli stretches Magda’s patience and won’t listen to the older woman’s justifications – or at least her behaviour means Magda thinks that she just won’t listen. (It is this refusal to engage with Magda’s perspective which is perhaps the disadvantage of the ‘diary’ narrative. I was strongly reminded of a similar narrative in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013). Ida is set in the 1960s and an 18 year-old young woman leaves a convent to meet her aunt who has been a judge in communist Poland. Juli could easily be in that 1960s-set film. I’d like to see what happens to her in the other three films, but availability looks a real problem. Perhaps MUBI can find them as well?