Review of movie about Stalin's famine in Ukraine.
In 1917 the working class in parts of Ukraine took control over their own lives and resources. Peasants and workers organised themselves collectively and made democratic decisions. They formed an army under the anarchist Nestor Makhno and defended their revolution against the Red Army of Trotsky on the one hand and the Right-Wing Whites on the other. By 1921 Makhno was beaten and Red authoritarianism held sway over the area. With the groundwork laid by Trotsky and Lenin, this lead over time to the dictatorship of Stalin in the 1920s’-1950s’. The latter refined the dictatorship in his own paranoid image, establishing a cult of personality, a penchant for vainglorious and wasteful industrial projects built by slave labour and a series of purges that killed all who stood in his way.
It’s a sad catalogue of events. What is even sadder is how a lot of this was denied, ignored or buried by sycophantic media hacks among the foreign press in Moscow and accepted by gullible Lefties in the West. Mr. JONES (2019) is a small budget English/Russian/Welsh language movie that attempts to address the mechanics of how one particular journalist-manque tried to counter the Kremlin propaganda machine.
The eponymous protagonist of this film is a young adviser to long-term Welsh politician David Lloyd George(Kenneth Cranham). He is made redundant so he looks for alternative employment. Having had some success in doing a previous article (based on a personal interview with Hitler, no less), and massaging the truth about his current status in relation to Lloyd George, Jones (James Norton) finagles his way to Moscow. On the back of this, he contrives to gain a guided tour of Ukraine, with the intention of slipping away from his minder and reporting on the truth of events of the regime induced famine there, while also pursuing a family memory. Despite the odds, he is successful in doing this and has a short interlude in which he sees the real state of affairs at first hand. The people of Ukraine are starving, dying in the millions and engaging in cannibalism and anything else just to survive. Jones is caught and manages to return to Wales but struggles to have his story published. Finally, he does.
The acting of Norton is sturdy. He manages to convey the earnestness of Jones without tipping over into boy scout idealism regarding his mission to bring the truth to light. His personal naivety is nicely contrasted with a performance by the consistently brilliant Peter Sarsgaard. He plays the Moscow based journalist Walter Duranty, here portrayed as a decadent lounge lizard who if he ever had any integrity, had long since sold it by this point. Rounding out a troika of the main characters is Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby) a Communist journalist who aids Jones. Unfortunately, her role is limited to a few scenes. Kirby makes the most of them though, suggesting a complexity of character via her eyes that some of the dialogue doesn’t manage to do. Her exchanges with Jones are interesting and one or two more scenes of them together would have helped strengthen the part. There is also a subplot with George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) that could either have been left out entirely or reworked to make it less clunky.
The directing by Agnieszka Holland is solidly professional but unremarkable overall. There are a couple of uses of a technique whereby the action is greatly speeded up for a brief period. In its first use, this is justified by the circumstance of the scene. This involves drug use and could be said to represent the subjective perspective of the drug user. Its second instance just feels arbitrary and gratuitous. The occasional use of noirish low angles at night is effective. There is also some subtlely effective use of windows semiotically relating to the nature of truth and being boxed in. The colour palette and lighting is uniformly dull and this seems congruent with the subject matter. Some of the plotting is a bit plodding in the first half but that is more the fault of the first time screenwriter Chalupa. Likewise, Chalupa could be faulted for the limited scope of the action showing what was after all an epic phenomenon. Holland provides her best scenes when Jones witnesses the famine. They have a sting to them that could have been turned into something truly remarkable if they had been sustained for longer. Perhaps this is excusable though, given the obviously limited budget available and the focus upon the story on an individual.
Mr. JONES is not an amazing movie as a cinematic experience but it gets its point across well enough. As for Ukraine itself, it is still suffering from authoritarian tendencies that originate both within the country and outside. Hopefully one day there may be a return to the sadly short period when the mass of people at the bottom of society there, took things into their own hands and tried to build a free society.
Cast: James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard, Joseph Mawle, Kenneth Cranham, Julian Lewis Jones
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Screenwriter: Andrea Chalupa
Producers: Klaudia Smieja-Rostworowska, Stanislaw Dziedzic, Andrea Chalupa
Executive producer: Leah Temerty-Lord
Director of photography: Tomasz Naumiuk
Production designer: Grzegorz Piatkowski
Costume designer: Aleksandra Staszko
Music: Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz
Editor: Michal Czarnecki
Casting: Colin Jones