A 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.