Mr. Jones

Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

Mr. Jones
dir Agnieszka Holland
scr Andrea Chalupa
prd Andrea Chalupa, Stanislaw Dziedzic, Klaudia Smieja
with James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard, Joseph Mawle, Kenneth Cranham, Celyn Jones, Krzysztof Pieczynski, Fenella Woolgar, Martin Bishop, John Edmondson, Michalina Olszanska, Marcin Czarnik
release Pol 25.Oct.19,
US Oct.19 ciff, UK 7.Feb.20
19/Poland 1h19

kirby sarsgaard mawle
london film fest

Based on a fascinating, harrowing true story, this finely crafted period thriller recounts a story that has eerie echoes for viewers at a time when fake news and government manipulation are apparent everyday. Produced on a grand scale, the film sometimes feels over-worthy, making sure the audience understands the historical importance. And the colour-drained aesthetic leaves the story a bit dry and choppy. But it's still powerful.
In 1933, British political advisor Gareth Jones (Norton) tries to warn former Prime Minister Lloyd George (Cranham) to stop backing Hitler. To facilitate a pact with the Soviets, Gareth travels to Moscow to find out how Stalin is funding expansive growth. He connects with the New York Times bureau chief Walter Duranty (Sarsgaard), who holds raucous parties but refuses to challenge Kremlin propaganda. So journalist Ada (Kirby) helps Gareth sneak off to the Ukraine to see what's happening firsthand. And he's horrified by a deadly man-made famine that no one is brave enough to report.
This story is framed with scenes of George Orwell (Mawle) writing Animal Farm, including a conversation with Gareth that makes George evaluate his opinions about Soviet communism. This forcefully drives home how government doublespeak can assuage a desperate populace, especially forceful when depicted at a moment in history when nobody took Hitler's ambition seriously. The film skilfully weaves these themes through a variety of scenes, although the weight of the issue overwhelms the narrative's personal power.

Holland directs in a controlled, artful way, which means that performances feel contained even when big emotions bubble up. Norton balances this beautifully, remaining both likeable and engaging as a young man determined to get the truth out against seemingly impossible odds. His visceral reactions to the things he sees are wrenchingly moving. Kirby is also good, even though her role feels oddly truncated. And Sarsgaard has terrific presence as the colourful veteran journalist who is badly compromised professionally. As depicted, his personal life would probably make J Edgar Hoover blush.

There's a sense that Chalupa's script has been painstakingly researched, weaving strikingly provocative elements from history into a darkly intriguing dramatic thriller. Meanwhile, Holland keeps everything in shadows, as gifted cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk makes each set looks elegantly underlit then further drains colour in the harrowing bleached-snow Ukrainian section. The pacing is perhaps too slow, and the tone too earnest, for the film to connect with mainstream audiences. But those with a passion for the truth will be gripped.

cert 15 themes, violence 13.Jan.20

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© 2020 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall