Agnieszka Holland’s new film “Mr. Jones” is an earnest period drama about a young reporter who struggled to maintain his professional integrity after coming to learn of a terrible injustice behind the Soviet Union government in the 1930s. While it surely chills and horrifies us a number of grim moments of human misery and suffering as expected, the movie often falters due to its uneven narrative and weak characterization, and I am not sure whether it succeeds as much as intended, though it does illuminate one of the most tragic incidents in the 20th century history.
Set in 1933, the movie presents its main subject mainly via the viewpoint of a real-life British journalist named Gareth Jones (James Norton), who drew lots of public attention for his successful interview with Adolf Hitler. Having closely observed Hitler during his interview, Jones fears that Hitler and his rising prominent political party will start another big war to disrupt the whole Europe, and he emphasizes to those old British politicians that the British government must cooperate more with the Soviet Union for stopping Hitler and Germany, but nobody takes his words that seriously.
At least, David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), who was once a British Prime Minister and is also Jones’ current employer, shows some care and attention to Jones. Although he soon has to fire Jones. he gladly writes a recommendation letter for Jones, and he also even helps Jones a bit on getting a journalist visa for Jones’ upcoming travel to Moscow.
Because he succeeded in interviewing Hitler, Jones is confident that he will also succeed in accomplishing his latest aim: interviewing Joseph Stalin. It seems that Stalin’s Soviet Union government has achieved considerable economic/industrial advance during last several years, and Jones is eager to find and then report on how that is actually possible even though the Soviet government has had financial problems for many years.
Of course, Jones soon comes across several bad signs as he leaves for Moscow. Not long before his departure from London, he has a phone conversation with one of his fellow journalist colleagues who has already been in Moscow for a while, and this fellow seems to be delving into something big enough for newspaper headline, but, not so surprisingly, their phone conversation is cut off right before he is about to tell a bit more to Jones. When Jones finally arrives in a hotel in Moscow, he belatedly comes to learn that his colleague was killed under a very suspicious situation, and that makes Jones more curious about what interested his dead friend before his unfortunate death.
In the meantime, he also comes to see more of how much everything is limited or prohibited for him and other foreign journalists in Moscow under the total control of the Soviet Union government. For example, they are never allowed to go outside Moscow for themselves, and whatever they are going to write is bound to be scrutinized by those local authorities before getting published outside the Soviet Union.
Moreover, to Jones’ dismay, many of his peers do not mind this blatant suppression of journalistic freedom at all. In case of Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), a cynical Pulitzer-winning American journalist who has worked as a reporter of the New York Times in Moscow, has attained his fame and reputation via his positive reporting on the Soviet Union in addition to getting along well with a number of powerful figures in its government, and he has also been privileged enough to hold a routine private evening part full of vice and decadence.
As getting close to a female journalist named Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), Jones gradually comes to learn of what his dead colleague tried to tell him at that time. It looks like something really serious is happening in Ukraine, so Jones decides to go there for himself, and he eventually manages to grab an opportunity to look here and there in Ukraine without anyone to follow or monitor him.
What he comes to witness there is pretty grim and despairing to say the least. The movie thankfully handles this part with some thoughtful restraint, and it never overlooks the horror inside a series of striking moments including a gut-chilling scene where Jones happens to encounter three hungry children who have depended on an unspeakable measure in the name of survival.
Sadly, the movie begins to go downhill after that narrative point, and the screenplay by Andrea Chalupa frequently stumbles and trudges during its last act, which involves with Jones’ long and frustrating struggle for getting his story reported more around the world. While the ending, which incidentally has a certain infamous figure associated with “Citizen Kane” (1941) as its deus ex machina, is too hurried, a recurring part involved with George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) feels too blatant and artificial in my trivial opinion.
Overall, “Mr. Jones” is a competent piece of work equipped with good period mood and several diligent performances from its main cast members, but I observed its story and characters with only mild interest. To be frank with you, I remember more of how cold the screening room was when I watched it this morning, and it is too bad that the movie is less palpable or memorable compared to that.