On the last day of 1930, a young man wrote a prescient article for the Cardiff Western Mail: “Liberty, for which fighters in Britain have struggled for centuries, is now considered pre-Victorian humbug throughout the world”.
That man was Gareth Jones, Welsh journalist and onetime Foreign Affairs adviser to Lloyd George.
As the first year of the 1930s drew to a close, Jones wrote of storm clouds, of a world made sick of Parliaments, “even in the home of Parliaments, Great Britain!”, and of nationalists multiplying. Lloyd George had said of him that he had the “almost unfailing knack of getting at things that mattered”.
One of those things that mattered was the Soviet Famine of the early 1930s, with several million people dying across grain-producing regions including Ukraine, Siberia, the Volga, Northern Caucasus and South Urals. This was a man-made famine, and an inconvenient truth for the regime and its supporters. It was minimised or covered up at the time by highly respectable newspapers such as the New York Times and the Manchester Guardian. Gareth Jones, and Rhea Clyman, a Canadian journalist, raised the alarm. They were soon forgotten in the turmoil that followed.
Agnieszka Holland’s new film describes Gareth Jones’s journey towards the truth. Increasingly concerned by rumours of widespread famine, he travels to Moscow under the pretext of an interview with Stalin and encounters his nemesis – Walter Duranty, the New York Times’ Moscow Bureau Chief.
This is a highly polished and compelling period drama made to a high standard. Its classically handsome lead, James Norton, captures convincingly the determined enthusiasm of a young journalist deeply aware of history’s big moments. The film’s period drama feel is carried out visually with gorgeous cinematography by the excellent Tomasz Naumiuk, who was previously DoP on Claire Denis’ “High Life”.
The script is a different matter. There is dramatic, and probably unnecessarily dramatic, licence – a romance, which it seems didn’t happen, a meeting with George Orwell, which it seems also didn’t happen, a lurid moment with Duranty, possibly superfluous, and which may or may not have happened – and events, which, according to his family, Jones did not witness. The famine in Ukraine seems to be put in sole focus, and as a result, the much broader extent of the famine recedes into the shadows.
Do such things matter? Perhaps, in this case, yes, because the story that seems to be at the heart of this film is more about a battle around journalistic integrity than about the causes of a man-made humanitarian disaster. Fewer liberties might have made a stronger film. Yet this is a story worth telling, and it is well-told – always the case with Agnieszka Holland, who is a prolific filmmaker with a fascinating history. Highly watchable and absorbing, this film opens the way to discovering more about Gareth Jones and the times he documented.
Director Agnieszka Holland
DoP Tomasz Naumiuk
With James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard and Beata Pozniak
“Mr. Jones” is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and Streaming on Amazon.
Read Gareth Jones’s biography, written by his niece and based on his diaries, More than a Grain of Truth.
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