Agnieszka Holland, UK/Ukraine/Russia
In 1933, one of the greatest famines of history occurred, but no one noticed. The Holodomor (Ukrainian for “Death by Starvation”), was man-made and while the precise political reasons behind it are still up for debate, it was direct result of Soviet economic policy in the Ukraine. Information about the famine was strictly controlled by the Soviet government and this was aided by key international figures of the press. It is this moment in history that Agnieszka Holland decided to highlight in her latest feature MR. JONES. The eponymous lead character is a Welsh journalist whose tenacity for following a story led him to discover the atrocities occurring and how he was brought down by a Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist.
Gareth Jones (James Norton) is largely naïve when he decides to go to Russia. Using forgery and some quick thinking, he manages to procure a visa and decides to try to find a way to interview Stalin. Following the suspicious death of a friend, he follows a new lead to Ukraine where he discovers horrors largely being kept under wraps from the international press in Moscow. The Ukrainian scenes are some of the most horrible and powerful of the film, outlining the devastating reality of the lives of rural people. He determines that it is his duty to inform the rest of the world about the atrocities and yet he finds that when powerful people wish something to remain hidden, they have no problem doing whatever it takes to keep it so.
At times such as now when journalism finds itself attacked politically and socially, MR. JONES strikes an intriguing balance of showing the power that journalists can have to reveal hidden truths and also to further state propaganda and censorship. Gareth Jones easily represents the idealistic version, a man who will stop at nothing to get the people the truth. Likewise, the jaded Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard) with his kinky sex parties, powerful position, and patronizing demeanor is the exact opposite. He will do whatever it takes to keep his power, even if it means contributing to silencing the deaths of millions. Both men are journalists, supposed to uphold the truth with their ethics, and yet it is Duranty who holds all of the power despite his corruption. The press is supposed to be a final part of checks and balances, ensuring that political powers are held accountable, but at the end of the day, who watches the watchmen?
MR.JONES is certainly an important work, if only because it highlights a tragedy of history which is often ignored. Unfortunately, the screenplay just doesn’t feel polished. There is the inclusion of George Orwell writing Animal Farm which feels out-of-place and there is a constant attempt to make the story feel like a thriller when the ending pretty much peters out instead of having a dramatic reveal. With a better screenplay, this could have been one of the best films of the Berlinale; instead it only makes an impact due to the dramatic backdrop rather than a clean story. That being said, it will likely make its way to a wider release and despite its failings it can only bring more attention to the Holodomor, the very thing that Gareth Jones sacrificed so much to achieve.