Good but not great, this handsomely-mounted biopic about a Welsh journalist’s news-breaking report on the Ukrainian famine of the early ‘30s under Stalin is a welcome introduction to a murky and disturbing part of 20th-century history.
Dir. Agnieszka Holland
2019 | Poland/UK | Biography/Drama | 118 mins | 2.39:1 | English, Ukrainian & Russian
M18 (passed clean) for nudity and some drug use
Cast: James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard
Plot: A Welsh journalist breaks the news in the western media of the famine in Ukraine in the early 1930s.
Awards: Nom. for Golden Bear (Berlinale)
International Sales: West End Films
Subject Matter: Moderate – History, Truth
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Viewed: Shaw Kinolounge
Agnieszka Holland, one of European cinema’s veteran female directors, is no stranger to making films about narratives set in the context of some of the darkest chapters in history such as Europa Europa (1990) and In Darkness (2011).
In Mr. Jones, which is a decidedly more accessible Hollywood-style biopic, Holland brings us back to the early 1930s, specifically to the Holodomor (or The Terror Famine) that killed millions of Ukrainians under Stalin’s notorious Soviet rule.
The titular protagonist, Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist with access to Russia, became the first person to break the news of the famine in Western media despite Soviet blackmail and death threats. The film works mostly as a straightforward biopic, though it is certainly handsomely-mounted with strong period detail.
After stumbling into and witnessing first-hand the ghastly state of things in a dangerous trip to a village in Ukraine, an abject segment brushed with cinematographic gloom, Jones’ stance towards Stalin changes irrevocably.
The performances are largely serviceable, though Vanessa Kirby’s supporting turn as a secret aider to (and possibly admirer of) Jones is notable.
There’s some effort to try to liven the pace of the film through quick montages and transitions accompanied by rhythmic music, but it is the theme of fake news and the moral right to tell the truth that stay strongest in the mind.
Even though Mr. Jones is about a murky and disturbing part of early 20th-century history, the lessons drawn are highly relevant for our times as the widespread fragmentation and monopolisation of truth remain a minefield to navigate.