Cinema Review: Mr. Jones | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Monday, August 10th, 2020  

Mr. Jones

Studio: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Directed by Agnieszka Holland

Jul 09, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Before uncovering the evil of Stalin’s famine-stricken Ukraine, Gareth Jones happens upon an arguably greater sin. During a key scene in the newly released historical drama Mr. Jones, Oscar nominated Polish director Agnieszka Holland (In Darkness, Europa Europa) has her eponymous protagonist (played with bespectacled righteousness by James Norton of Happy Valley) visit a gluttonous orgy between country club expats in Moscow. While there, the meek to a fault Jones sees a whole new side (in every sense of the word) of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Walter Duranty, as strung out on heroine as he is naked and lecherous. Played with posh malevolence by Peter Sarsgaard (Boys Don’t Cry, An Education) Duranty calls Jones a bore after the younger, far less credentialed Welsh journalist politely declines to partake in the debauchery.

Little do either know then how their diverging personalities will reach even greater extremes. Anyone familiar with the region’s history during World War II will know of Duranty’s denials and apologist coverage of the famine as he grew figuratively fat off the comforts of Moscow (both the city and the capital bureaucracy), even if his lewd private club proclivities are only alleged (perhaps even exaggerated in the film). Ever the Boy Scout, Jones rebukes the temptations of Moscow, doges his minders and slips into the famine-stricken Poland that Stalin is desperately trying to depict as a thriving communist utopia to an unknowing world.

Despite the compelling, heart wrenching subject matter, Sarsgaard’s antagonist is sadly (and, unintentionally) correct that the film’s supposed hero is an outright bore. Norton does his best with dialogue that rings authentic but falls far short of developing his character in any compelling way. His romance with British correspondent Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby, an award winner for her portrayal of Princess Margaret in Netflix’s The Crown) feels tacked on, in part because her character is as thinly drawn as his. An establishing scene with George Orwell, drawing inspiration from Jones’ intrepid investigative reporting on the Soviet famine, feels as patchy as the romance subplot with Brooks.

Flaws aside, the film’s depiction of the famine is nothing short of harrowing. Norton is far more effective here as an audience surrogate, aghast while snapping his camera, desperate while wading through the snow while wondering if he’ll be the famine’s next victim. The less that’s said about the suffering he encounters, the better, but suffice to say each grim scene will linger with viewers long after the credits roll. Holland’s deft direction of these scenes is masterful, conveying the barren chill with on-point camera angles and equally successful location scouting. The period wardrobe and props are equally convincing, vividly transporting viewers back to 1933.

If only the film’s subplots and first act measured up to the attributes listed above. If Mr. Jones was given an HBO or BBC limited series treatment, we could become better acquainted with the eponymous journalist, and better grasp his heroism from Holland’s strong direction. As is, Norton only has time to play him as a sufficient audience stand in during some of the year’s most chilling historical drama scenes. Effective as that is, it’s a shame to not see Mr. Jones live up to its greater potential.

Author rating: 6/10

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