“Mr. Jones” is a serious-minded, heartbreaking drama starring James Norton as a journalist determined to uncover the truth about Joseph Stalin in the tumultuous time before World War II. Based on the true story of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, Jones first gained notice after snagging an interview with Adolf Hitler and soon attempted to investigate Stalin’s impossibly rosy claims of prosperity. When he breaks free of the carefully controlled media narrative in Moscow, Jones discovers the horrors of a manmade famine in Ukraine, an atrocity called the Holodomor that killed millions of people.
Norton is totally compelling as Jones and the viewer will eagerly follow him anywhere, even to the most desperate villages. Norton is excellent at portraying a vulnerability that belies his muscular good looks, as he did in his breakthrough role as the lovelorn, jazz-obsessed vicar Sidney Chambers in the BBC series “Grantchester.” He can make sincerity appealing like no one else.
The passionate, idealistic Jones is contrasted with the Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times journalist Walter Duranty, trusted and regarded as “Our Man in Moscow.” Content to tow the party line and publicize it in the West, Duranty enjoys wealth and respect and throws hedonistic, heroin-fueled parties in the nude. Meanwhile, Jones never so much as removes his owlish spectacles, intent on carrying on an investigation into the situation in Ukraine, especially after the colleague who tipped him off to the story winds up dead.
In Moscow, Jones meets a fascinating woman, Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby of “The Crown”), a German expat working under Duranty, and theirs is a brief but vital relationship. Kirby’s comparatively limited screen time makes a big impact. In the buildup to Jones’s unauthorized visit to Ukraine, the film gives different perspectives on why people are doing what they are doing and saying what they are saying. Jones proclaims there is only one version of the truth and that truth is his only agenda, but Duranty has his own deeply entrenched interests, including a young son, while Brooks’s point of view is informed by her own difficulties in Germany.
The world is reeling from WWI, and warily watching the rise of Hitler. When a journalist says of Hitler, “He will soon learn that there’s a great deal of difference between holding a rally and running a country,” I gasped. The first half of the film is a fascinating, earnest journalistic procedural, complete with frantic typing, nervous sources and scraps of paper burned up after being read. Once Jones makes his way to the famine-stricken Ukraine, the film has less dialogue and focuses more on grim, dreamlike imagery and the haunting refrain of singing children.
The narrative structure of this true story is a little spotty at times, but the cast keeps “Mr. Jones” completely riveting. The film begins with George Orwell writing “Animal Farm” because Orwell is said to have been inspired by Jones’s expose to write his own famous allegory of the failures and limitations of Stalin’s socialist regime. While that is certainly interesting, this framing device was unnecessary, even distracting, as if Jones’s struggle to be heard continued even into the film that was made with his name as the title.
If you like historical dramas, “Mr. Jones” is thrilling, sad and above all, well acted. The struggles of the main characters and the hardships they witness will stay with the viewer long after the film has ended. I don’t want to be reminded of our current political/media climate any more than you do, but I must admit some of the issues in “Mr. Jones” are timely, and that makes it all the more compelling.
“Mr. Jones” is currently available to stream on demand.
Bonus Netflix mini-review: “Enola Holmes” is really cute and fun to watch. Plus, it’s rated PG-13 so that opens up a lot of co-screening possibilities. Henry Cavill is useless, almost invisible, as Sherlock Holmes, but the creation of his little sister, Enola, is a delightful role for Millie Bobby Brown, who twinkles as she breaks the fourth wall to tell us her story.
The disappearance of her independent-minded mother (Helena Bonham Carter) opens up a world of sleuthing and misadventure for young Enola, beginning with an escape from her older brothers, Sherlock and Mycroft. She meets a cute young lord on the run from his own family, and the whole thing winds up in London, centering around a social reform vote. It’s light stuff, but always entertaining, and Millie Bobby Brown runs away with it and away from her famous role as Eleven in “Stranger Things.”
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