‘Mr. Jones’ review — (Un)Forgotten Truth

The story of a young Welsh journalist, Gareth Jones, who was one of the first in the early 1930s to tell the world about the Holodomor in Soviet Union.

Illustration by Christina Cook

Mr. Jones (Obywatel Jones) is a film directed by Agnieszka Holland, which premiered at the 69th Berlin International Film Festival. It is not the first time the Polish director has taken up filming a drama about Ukraine. For example, the movie In Darkness (W ciemności) is set in Lviv (West Ukraine) during the Second World War. The issue of genocide is common for both films. In Darkness explores the topic of the Holocaust, whereas Mr. Jones focuses on the Holodomor.

Agnieszka Holland’s movie is distinctly different from Oles Yanchuk’s seminal film Famine-33 or George Mendeluk’s Bitter Harvest. The director shows the Soviet Union through the eyes of a foreigner who himself witnesses and the major Ukrainian tragedy.

Gareth Jones’ story is devoid of pseudo-documentary features and ridiculous romanticism. A young man, the former advisor to Lloyd George, a well-known political figure, wants to interview Joseph Stalin. He is willing to understand where the money the USSR uses to implement all its projects are coming from. The gentleman is confident that having talked to Hitler and having obtained the recommendation from the former British prime minister, he will be able to achieve his goal.

Upon the journalist’s arrival in Moscow, his focus shifts from the leader of the state to his ‘gold’, i.e. the fertile Ukrainian black soil. Gareth Jones embarks on a journey after which his ordinary life will never be the same again.

Mr. Jones is ambitious and brutally honest. He is not afraid to disclose his point of view even at the risk of losing recognition or ruining his career. In spite of being ridiculed by the experienced politicians, despite being oppressed by the unjust system, he firmly stands by his convictions.

Mr. Jones’ image is a combination of idealism and slight naivety. Would any other foreigner win such trust of the Soviet Union’s officials that they send one single warden to accompany him, the warden who could be easily escaped from?

The idealism of the protagonist sharply contrasts with the dark-mindedness of Walter Duranty, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the New York Times, the so-called ‘inside man in Moscow.’ He is one of those who conceal the crimes of the USSR.

The film does not fully explain Duranty’s motives. We can only guess what has happened. Has he been bribed? Has he given in to pressure? Or has he tried to protect his family?

In contrast, Gareth is the one who dares to find out the truth and tell it to others.

Mr. Jones faces the famine right after he has escaped from the warden. The encounter is set against the backdrop of a dark carriage which the journalist has managed to jump into. It is full of exhausted, weary people and it is a bright colored orange Gareth takes out of his bag that brings the given place to life.

At first, he is surprised that he so easily manages to exchange a loaf of bread for a warm coat. However, the further he goes, the worse things happen around him.

There are a few scenes in Mr. Jones you might want to look away from. That is what the bitter truth is like. Even though it may seem to be on the verge of sheer madness.

There are starving people everywhere; a baby who is still alive is thrown on the cart to the dead mother; cannibalism appears to be closer than ever. It is worth mentioning that all the events depicted in the film are accompanied by the authentic songs of the times of the famine. They convey both hope and hopelessness of the people who are singing them.

The Holodomor in the life of a young Welsh journalist has grown into a personal tragedy. The tragedy of helplessness and vulnerability.

Gareth simply faces the barrier he is not able to break through, which is the AUTHORITY. He looks for other levers of influence and succeeds in finding them. Yet, people who can make a difference remain unconcerned with the problems of some distant, strategically unimportant people.

The life of the people of that time in the large USSR machine is shown in great detail. It is the reality where the propaganda is stronger than the truth and all the people are ‘happy’ moving towards the bright communist future, while the deaths of millions of people are wrapped in catchy slogans of progress and hidden in a deep drawer, away from other people’s eyes.

A number of topics covered in Agnieszka Holland’s film are still relevant today.

Some media bombard people with populism and propaganda. Even the leading media sometimes neglect fact-checking and share unreliable information.

So, has the situation changed since Gareth Jones tried to get at the truth? It seems so. Is the objective truth established everywhere and every time? Apparently, the answer to the latter question is debatable.

Understatement, manipulation and the issue of common humanity are critical to modern society as well. Therefore, the given film should be considered not only as a tour into the past but also as a mirror reflecting the problems we are facing today.

It is hard to realize that Mr. Jones is not just a movie, it is a part of people’s lives, real lives. Somebody passed away too early, someone stayed in that earthly hell a bit longer and very few managed to escape.

Agnieszka Holland’s film itself should be experienced as a small life, during which you sympathize, fight, hate and forgive.

Premiere — 10 Feb ’19 (Berlin International Film Festival)
Runtime — 119 min
IMDb — 7,2

Cinephile: visitor of 71st/72nd Cannes Film Festival, 69th/70th Berlinale, Stockholm FF, etc.