Mr. Jones review: Unspooling at the Berlinale is Agnieszka Holland’s latest, an extremely powerful examination of the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones’ (James Norton) and his journey to the Ukraine pre-World War II where he exposed the devastating Soviet famine of 1932-1933.
You may be forgiven for now knowing about the devastating events on which this film is based – I shamefully didn’t – but Oscar-winning Polish director Holland’s new film is detailed, utterly engrossing and extremely commanding.
The film gets off to a slow start, Andrea Chalupa’s screenplay not willing to rush things, the story picking up on Jones following a recent interview with Adolf Hitler. He’s in Moscow, hoping to score a one-to-one with Joseph Stalin in Ukraine. He waits for his passage by mixing with local ex-pats, including Peter Saarsgard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Walter Duranty, Moscow Bureau Chief of The New York Times. He eventually manages to get passage into neighbouring Ukraine on an official basis but ends up straying from his companion which is where he starts to see the devastating state of the country. People are clamouring for food. People are starving and, as a result, people are dying. Jones, despite having limited rations, some of which he trades for a warm coat, soon finds himself in the same situation; starved, deep in snow-drenched rural Ukraine.
The film charts not only his journey through the wilderness, but also the constant roadblocks he comes up against as he attempts to publish details about his experience, and the devastating killer that is ravaging the country.
Mr. Jones is impressive in almost every single way. Holland’s direction is first-rate, the pacing never sluggish – please don’t baulk at the length 140-minute running time – and the images she and cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk have put on the screen are simply stunning. Naumiuk employs the use of very desaturated look during the scenes where Jones is alone in the wild, and in one memorable moment introduces an orange – as in the fruit – heavy in glorious colour as a ravenous Jones, at the time unaware of the situation he’s just sauntered in to, opening it up to eat in front of a dozen or so hungry locals, packed into a train carriage.
Norton is superb in the title role – a career-making turn and shines bright in every scene. Vanessa Kirby (The Crown) also dazzles in a supporting role as Ada, while Saarsgard neatly nearly steals the whole show as Duranty, his best performance for absolutely ages.
An eye-opening, utterly engrossing and urgent piece of fine filmmaking, focusing on the absolute importance of having a free press, its themes in terms of that still relevant over 80 years on.
Mr. Jones review by Paul Heath, Berlinale 2019.