‘Mr. Jones’ and the Great Soviet Famine

James Norton sheds his priestly wardrobe in favor of a reporter’s fedora in new biopic.

The real life investigative reporter at the center of Agnieszka Holland’s film Mr. Jones is virtuous and dogged in his pursuit of the truth. Largely based on his travels to Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, Gareth Jones (d. 1935) is portrayed as the embodiment of a liberal-minded journalist. But Jones’ (James Norton) calling isn’t journalism, per se. He’s simply determined to speak truth to power. If he suffers from a form of hubris in the movie, it shows up in two distinctly related aspects of his character. 

First, he mistakenly concludes that his convictions, moral and righteous as they are, will be shared by his colleagues and by an informed, infinitely receptive society at large. Secondly, he underestimates the amount of institutional indifference he’ll face when he returns home. Jones is clear-sighted about the horrors that he bears witness to abroad, but is correspondingly naive about his government’s unwillingness to take action. 

Mr. Jones is James Norton’s first noteworthy screen role as a leading man. He’s been acting steadily for the past 10 years, including a supporting role in the remake of last year’s Little Women by Greta Gerwig. But in the United States, he’s arguably most known for the clergyman he played in the TV series Grantchester. The script condenses Jones’ life down to the years shortly before and after his revelatory article about the Great Soviet Famine of 1932–33. What’s left out of the film is Jones’ motivation. What were his early influences, his family life, education  and his peers like? Did they inform his early, impassioned stances against Adolf Hitler and Stalin?

Without showing the audience his character’s formative years, Norton manages to radiate both a plausible drive to do good and the inherent goodness of Jones himself. When he’s on the ground, exploring impoverished Ukrainian villages, the audience shares his sense of bewilderment and shock as he encounters unattended, starving children in the middle of winter. 

Holland films Mr. Jones with the same humanistic approach she takes in her World War II drama Europa, Europa (1990). The director captures the subtle emotions of every major and minor character and then sets them against chilling political backdrops. Mr. Jones is a more intimate epic than Warren Beatty’s Reds (1980), smaller in scope, with impeccable cinematography, costume and set designs that deserve to be seen on the big screen (some day). 

Norton’s co-stars, especially Vanessa Kirby and Peter Sarsgaard, heighten the levels of dramatic tension. As Walter Duranty, the duplicitous Moscow bureau chief of The New York Times, Sarsgaard returns to the screen with his snarling facial expressions (he should trademark them). Instead of feeling tiresome or clichéd, Sarsgaard finds something uniquely sinister in Duranty. He has the veneer of propriety, but inside he’s a recognizable monster — another bureaucrat determined to help his own kind stay in power. Standing up to his cunning and dominance, Jones never quite grasps that he’s out of his depths by fathoms.   

Vanessa Kirby plays Ada Brooks, Duranty’s brilliant, pragmatic assistant. Jones is after material about the famine that another journalist was murdered for discovering. Brooks reluctantly helps him but in doing so she’s likely damning him to the same fate. Kirby, who was memorable as Princess Margaret in The Crown, deserves to star in the sequel. Her Brooks is tense, unromantic and smart enough to navigate a Machiavellian boss and a workplace that’s dense with spies and routine betrayals. 

There’s a small, unnecessary subplot involving George Orwell. According to the film, Orwell based his novel Animal Farm on Jones’ reporting. When the author types his manuscript, Holland adds the sound of oinking pigs to the soundtrack. It’s the only heavy-handed, extraneous scene that, when dramatized, draws our attention away from Jones’ absorbing storyline. 

In addition to Reds, the HBO miniseries Chernobyl and Armando Iannucci’s caustic satire The Death of Stalin (2017) are worthwhile companions to Mr. Jones. Collectively, they produce a portrait of a country that’s embraced totalitarian leadership as an inevitability. More often than not, the country portrayed on screen looks like Russia and sounds like Trump’s America. 

Mr. Jones is now streaming on VOD.

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