Mr Jones

mr jonesA pretty grim and depressing film, mainly because of how timely it seems to be. This is a film that examines the lies of politics, the schemes of bureaucracy, and the power (or lack of) of truth- and moreover the importance of that truth. In a world in which truth seems to be defined by what is being repeated often enough by those in power, and in which investigative journalism seems to be becoming increasingly marginalised, films such as this are all the more important and welcome.

James Norton is in particularly fine form here -indeed, I don’t think I’ve seen him better- as Gareth Jones, a courageous Welsh journalist who risked his life and liberty to investigate and bring to the world’s attention Stalin’s Holodomor- a man-made famine decried afterwards as an act of genocide -within Soviet Ukraine between 1932 and 1933, in which millions of Ukrainians perished. The sequences within the wintry wastes of the Ukraine, with Jones walking dumbly past frozen bodies along the road, or his horror as he finds dead people in abandoned houses, are brutal and harrowing. The real horror, however, is in the reaction of Western powers: if I were charitable, I would suggest that they were distracted by Hitler’s rise in Germany and what that spelt for the immediate future of Europe, but on the other hand, its a damning indictment of the necessary evils and blinkered vision of diplomacy, history offering us a bleak hindsight.

I wouldn’t suggest this film is perfect- indeed, its possibly far from it, mainly its perhaps being just too earnest in its efforts to denounce the wrongs of those who should have known better or acted differently,  and in championing the bravery and efforts of Gareth Jones, whose passion for truth would ultimately doom him just a few years later (the film alleges his murder was an act of revenge by Soviet Intelligence). Those sequences of wintry apocalypse in the Ukraine wastes are the gripping centre-point of the film, and nothing afterwards measures up to them- indeed, its those wastes that linger in the memory like some distraction through the remainder of the film and afterwards. Like Peterloo, another film that reveals a possibly forgotten part of history,  Mr Jones doesn’t really feel worthy of the task (although this film is much better than that one).

It could also be argued the editing of the film undermines it, that the film is too long – and interludes with George Orwell and his Animal Farm are well-intended but ill-judged and awkwardly implemented, perhaps better left on the cutting-room floor- but ultimately this films subject matter is so worthy it feels churlish to really criticise its shortcomings. Yes, its blatantly a ‘message’ movie, a lesson from history that feels like it stumbles when it should really soar, but it certainly deserves to be seen and allow us to reflect on the times we are living in.

Mr Jones is available on digital platforms and DVD and Blu-ray.

Peterloo

peterloo3Peterloo is an often gripping and very troubling account of real events that echo across the centuries to current events that we see on the news from Hong Kong every weekend. The more things change, the more they stay the same, it would seem. On 16 August 1819, during what passed for a nineteenth-century pro-democracy demonstration in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, an apparently rather drunk band of cavalry and yeomanry (whose self-congratulatory commander was elsewhere, literally enjoying a day at the races) charged wielding sabres into a crowd of over 100,000 unarmed people who were there to hear the words of famed orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear). The troops killed eighteen and injured over six hundred, and the British Government was very pleased with itself, jailing Hunt for two years while not punishing anybody for the deaths.

While I was impressed by the sense of time and place, I did have a few issues with the film. While the events are abhorrent and unthinkable, they almost seem to descend into farce and caricature, like something from a Blackadder episode (the Prince Regent such a self-entitled Royal ass it’s almost too much to take seriously). It may very well be historically accurate in all respects, and if so it’s only all the more damning, but it skirts the event horizon of believability. Maybe we’ve just moved on so far with reforms since (albeit some might argue still not far enough) that those days seem too distant and from some other world. Maybe we’re fooling ourselves, considering events in Hong Kong, that things like this are wholly of the past, but the near-farce demonstrated in the film does it a disservice I think. At times it feels almost too camp, almost too Monty Python.

Peterloo is also at least a half-hour too long. While the political and intellectual arguments do require some airing, the lengthy debates at clandestine public meetings or in Parliament are very long and the endless talk, talk, talk proves wearisome, doing the film few favours, although I am sure director Mike Leigh was simply trying to explain some of the intricacies of the political climate and views. A leaner film might have served it better- as it is, it runs two and a half hours, and while I do not mind long films,  it feels like a long two and a half hours.

peterloo1I also missed what I expected to be some text at the close of the story to explain what happened next (instead I had to revert to google). It proved a little frustrating, that after spending so long in that milieu with those many characters, not to see what happened afterwards, what the repercussions were, seems an odd oversight by the film makers. The film is left bereft of perspective – imagine had Glory ended with the bodies being dumped into the mass grave with no text to explain how those events depicted in that film impacted the fortunes of that civil war and racial politics. The fade-out straight to end credits seems like a mistake, an error of judgement, to me.

So a not wholly-successful film I think. I suspect it may have gotten away from Leigh, that he lost control of it somewhat. Stil, its harrowing but educating viewing and certainly worth a watch, but I am left with the feeling that the events deserved a better film, somehow. Perhaps if I watch it again I may feel differently.