By Peg Aloi
Director Agnieszka Holland deftly presents a vision of genocide that is hard-hitting but never manipulative: the horror pervades the monochrome beauty of snow, skeletal trees, and pale, sunken faces.
Mr. Jones, directed by Agnieszka Holland. Streaming on Amazon Prime.
If you are like me, that is to say, someone of middle-age who had a public school education, then you probably read George Orwell’s Animal Farm somewhere between eighth grade and tenth grade (1984, racier and darker, came later, maybe junior or senior year). Perhaps, like me, you couldn’t relate to the horrors of Stalinism as they played out (symbolically) in the fable. Yeah, yeah, men are pigs, pigs are men, proletariats of the world unite, etc. Director Agnieszka Holland’s new film looks at the origins of Animal Farm through the experience of a Welsh journalist whose writings inspired it. The screenplay, a debut effort by author Andrea Chalupa, is based on her book Orwell and the Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm.
This story begins just before World War II, at the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power. Stalin’s Soviet propaganda is attracting working-class idealists throughout Europe. In London, 27-year-old fledgling journalist Gareth Jones (Little Women’s James Norton) is fresh off the success of his first published interview — with Adolf Hitler (he had yet to seize power as a Fascist dictator). In a meeting with much older newspapermen, Jones proffers a warning about the looming danger of war with Germany. It is mocked and shrugged off, as are his questions about how an economically challenged London would pay for such a war. One of the old boys says pointedly, “Mr. Hitler shall soon learn there’s a difference between holding a rally and running a country.” With this scene, the film’s relevance to our time becomes uncomfortably clear; later on we see journalists left speechless after a momentous announcement is made to the press — and they are not permitted to ask any follow-up questions.
Undaunted by the scoffers, Jones tries to get his editor to send him to Moscow, so he can interview Stalin. He is chastised for his ambition, but walks off with a letter of recommendation after he is given the sack. Calculating but impulsive, Jones makes his way to Moscow, taking risks he knows may end his career or even his life. He is encouraged by a chance meeting with a fellow journalist, Paul Kleb (Son of Saul’s Marcin Czarnik), who tells him there is a huge story to be uncovered in Ukraine, where the mysterious links between England and Germany might be uncovered. The utter insouciance with which Jones’s English superiors discount the danger of Hitler’s ideology and imminent rise to power drives Jones’s alarm, his determination to unravel the connections.
Kleb is found dead in Moscow a few days later, killed by “bandits.” Obviously, he was a victim of the State and its intolerance for detractors (or, as they call them, “spies”). (Continuing the contemporary parallels, the character’s death is an homage to Paul Klebnikov, a journalist murdered in Moscow in 2004.) Jones learns this disturbing news just after meeting Pulitzer Prize–winning writer for the New York Times Walter Duranty (played with cold, calm glee by Peter Sarsgaard). The latter’s famous quip “You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs” appeared in the Times story that won him the coveted award in 1932. He used the metaphor to downplay Russian horrors: the spoils of war and its collateral damage. Duranty, known as “The Times’ Man in Moscow,” also dismissed stories of the Holomodor, Stalin’s man-made famine which caused the death of millions of Ukrainians. Sarsgaard’s Duranty is an Englishman who has a thing for decadent parties and salacious proclivities. Invited to one of his soirees, teetotaler Jones is only faintly scandalized; he chooses to see Duranty’s libertine ways as an emblem of his open-mindedness and humanity. Sadly, he could not be more wrong. Jones also makes the acquaintance of Duranty’s assistant, Ada Brooks (The Crown’s Vanessa Kirby), a journalist in her own right whose beat has been Berlin. She keeps Jones at arm’s length, despite their common cause, having lost one comrade already (her empty expression when Paul’s death is mentioned speaks volumes). But their affectionate bond serves as an emotional through-line that underscores Jones’s lonely journey.
Jones secures passage to the Ukraine. He has dinner on the train with a man who knows far too much about him; the reporter manages to dodge the agent and set out on his own, leaving his coat behind. He ends up riding in a freight car packed with Ukrainians. At one point he pulls out the orange Ada gave him for the journey. After eating two sections, he throws the peels to the floor; a crowd immediately descends on them. Amazed, he hands the rest of the orange to a young girl, who shares the fruit with her companion. This is Jones’s first glimpse of the famine. Ensuing scenes include powerful images of starving people left to die in the snow, their corpses thrown like rubbish onto carts. Jones stands numb and shocked at the sight, unable to take photographs. Eventually, he finds himself starving also, reduced to eating tree bark — and worse.
Holland deftly presents a vision of genocide that is hard-hitting but never manipulative: the horror pervades the monochrome beauty of snow, skeletal trees, and pale, sunken faces. The cinematography by Tomasz Naumiuk (High Life) is sumptuous and thrilling. An a cappella song sung by women in one scene serves as a haunting leitmotif, part of a memorable score by Antoni Lazarkiewicz. Jones’s return home offers a fleeting but indelible crystallization of the atrocities he has witnessed. In a restaurant, celebrating his safe return and the acceptance of his story in the New York Times, a wheeled cart carrying a huge sliced ham slowly rolls past him, catching his eye. His easy smile falters. The memories of the rolling carts carrying the frozen dead and the starving, desperate citizens will never leave him.
Some moviegoers might be feeling more than a little bit world-weary these days. The prospect of a film that draws both subtle and blatant parallels between Europe in 1934 and the United States in 2020 might be heavy-handed for some and distasteful for others. But, even though most of the film’s details will be unfamiliar to many (as they were to me), Mr. Jones is so artfully rendered that it is hard to think of a better film for this moment. In fact, it is hard to come up with any World War II epic that reveals war’s human cost and virulent inhumanity with such intimate precision.
Gareth Jones’s story, of an unknown and mostly unsung journalist hero trying to do the right thing amid overwhelming resistance, should inspire all of us who feel helpless and inadequate now. Bearing witness is an elemental part of fighting for justice. This film underscores the crucial urgency of testifying to the truth. Do not look away, it beseeches us. Do not look away.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.