Mr Jones (Poland-UK-Ukraine, 2019)

Witnessing history

The last film directed by Agnieszka Holland that I’ve seen was In Darkness, a brilliant rendition of life under the Nazis in Warsaw. Since then she’s (co-)directed Spoor (Pokot, Poland-Germany-Czech Republic-Sweden-Slovakia-France, 2017) which wasn’t released in the UK and isn’t available on DVD here, and done a lot of television. I can’t comment on the latter but Holland’s cinematic eye deserves the big screen and, above everything else, Mr Jones is a visual treat. I don’t mean that it seduces with a beautiful mise en scene, as many of the scenes are hellish, but the vistas presented to the spectator are often eye-popping.

The film is the true story of Gareth Jones, a journalist who interviewed Hitler and the film portrays him trying to do the same with Stalin in the mid-1930s. In doing so he discovers what’s happening in Ukraine and the second part of the film, after establishing the milieux in Moscow, concerns his journey there and the aftermath. I’d never heard of Mr Jones and his story is compelling; it’s also entirely modern in the importance of speaking truth to power which corporate journalism has largely forgotten how to do. James Norton is excellent in the role of the somewhat diffident Welshman (are the Welsh always protrayed as such?) who doesn’t waver from his principles. If the film has a weakness, it’s the script by newcomer Andrea Chalupa, whose grandfather witnessed the events. There are occasions where it doesn’t quite gel, although to be fair it could be caused by the problem with biopics which are inevitably compromised by squeezing a life into narrative. That said, although it is about Jones, it’s not a conventional biopic, he’s more the witness through which history is portrayed.

Chalupa fictionalises a meeting with George Orwell (it isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that the meeting took place) who was writing Animal Farm at the time; I read somewhere that the character in the novel may have been named after Gareth Jones. It’s a useful device as it reminds us how Stalin was, for a time, a hero of the left before disillusionment set in.

The main strengths of the film (apart from the performances) are Holland’s direction, Tomasz Naumiuk’s cinematography and the editing by Michal Czarnecki. At least three sequences of travel are characterised by editing influenced by Soviet theorist and filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein: the montage is non realist and dynamic. During Jones’ first train journey it seemed as if there were shots interpolated from documentaries made at the time, such as Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera. The editing was so rapid that I couldn’t see them clearly but even if it wasn’t old footage, the allusion is clear. However, using similar techniques for a rushed journey on a bicycle comes across only as comic.

The cinematography of Jones’ journey into the Ukraine becomes almost, suitably, monochromatic. Fabulous widescreen extreme long shots show Jones as a small black coated figure ploughing his way through a field of snow in the bottom right of the screen. Although the acting is naturalistic throughout, the characters’ faces are sometimes caught (at the start or end of a shot) in an unusual expression. This creates a stylisation to the acting which Holland emphasises through editing; an early shot of a secretary cuts to her open-mouthed. This is particularly true of Peter Sarsgaard’s Walter Duranty, a Pulitzer winning journalist; he epitomises ‘slimy’ and Arendt’s phrase ‘the banality of evil’ springs to mind.

Vanessa Kirby is effective as Jone’s ‘love interest’ and the sexist characterisation is just about all we get of female characters. It was probably a strain on reality to make her role so big anyway, as the ’30s were obviously more male-dominated than today. And I was amused to see William Randolph Hearst being shown as a hero of press freedom.

The film’s already available on DVD and online but catch in cinemas if you can as Holland’s films deserve to be seen there.

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