With a true story as interesting as ‘journalist becomes the first foreigner to discover the atrocities of Stalin’s man-made famines in Ukraine’, you wouldn’t think Mr Jones would need to struggle to find a focus. Yet, Agnieszka Holland’s film does just that, failing to smoothly connect each of its three acts, and diminishing the power of its harrowing middle with a drawn out conclusion that drags on for too long.
Seeking an interview with Stalin, Gareth Jones (James Norton) sets about travelling to Moscow, where he is greeted by the Kremlin’s American toady Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard) and the more idealistic Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), who tells Jones that the real story lies in Ukraine. Slipping his handlers, Jones ventures into the barren, starved wastes of the USSR’s supposed bread basket and experiences first hand the true horrors of hunger. It’s in this empty hell that Mr Jones is at its finest, long stretches with only sparse dialogue letting the aggressive landscape and gaunt, pale locals tell the story. One particularly horrifying moment had me holding my breath as the audience waits for Jones to realise the exact origin of the meat in one of his rare hot suppers.
There’s a power here that Holland sadly can’t sustain, and her choice for the third act – in which Jones tries to sell his story to the British press – to go on for as long as it does, is baffling. The energy and tension is sapped steadily, while some frankly bizarre editing and cinematography rips you right out of the world. Andrea Chalupa’s script often seems too concerned with the least interesting aspects of any given scene, and it is far too attached to Jones’s literary legacy instead of his journalistic bravery.
Jones’s writings helped inspire George Orwell to write Animal Farm, a fact that Mr Jones is inexplicably giddily excited about. Played by a criminally wasted Joseph Mawle, Orwell appears in a series of utterly pointless flash forwards, writing up Animal Farm and occasionally deploying its most famous lines in a thuddingly on the nose voiceover. Surely there was enough material to fill more of the film with Jones’s struggle through Ukraine, and if not, then Mr Jones should have been at least 20 minutes shorter.