Agnieszka Holland’s latest is a well-intentioned but muddled history of an underexplored genocide.
One of the masters of didactic cinema during the Communist era in Poland, Agnieszka Holland has more recently (with a small handful of exceptions) struggled to reassert herself as an eminent voice in European filmmaking. But if her recent output has not necessarily been prestigious, it has been prolific, with work screened at the Berlin Film Festival in 2017, 2019 and the upcoming Charlatan in 2020, and the Orwell-inspired eight-part drama 1983, for Netflix, nestled in between.
Mr Jones, which premiered in Berlin last February and finally receives its wide UK release this weekend, is another entry in Holland’s catalogue of survival stories amid totalitarianism, but by no means a particularly effective one. James Norton plays the titular role, an up-and-coming Welsh-born foreign reporter trying to make sense of an austere and autocratic 1930s. Hot off the back of a notable interview with Hitler, Jones now seeks a sit-down with Stalin – but it’s the obstacles in the way of the answers he desires, and the cruel sights he is subjected to along the way, that define the rest of the ambitious journalist’s life and career.
The topicality of Mr Jones will be lost on few who see it; much like The Post or Chernobyl, notions of truth and misinformation are aplenty. When the twenty-something former diplomat tells a sceptical Foreign Office establishment that they ought to fear Hitler more than they can understand, he is told blithely, “Herr Hitler will soon find out that running a country and holding a rally aren’t the same thing.” Aren’t they?
And when Jones confronts the sleazy Moscow writers’ establishment with his graphic, near-unbelievable findings from the fertile fields of central and eastern Ukraine, they tell him righteously, “It’s not the job of a journalist to say, ‘How dare you?’” Isn’t it?
Unfortunately, Holland’s answers to these contentions are simpler than Jones’s intricate experiences might suggest. Many of the supporting characters, a miscast Vanessa Kirby as Jones’s trusty assistant Ada Bloom and the villainous New York Times region editor Walter Duranty, are little more than vignettes of the ideas Mr Jones attempts to grasp. In a film far above two hours in length, which either way takes too long to establish its primary storyline, we can expect better than these undercooked characterisations.
The cost of a weak narrative in a film with subject matter like this almost stings more harshly, because to depict the evil perpetrators and sleazy collaborators of a sickening crime as straightforwardly villainous is to fail to explain how such figures can rise to prominence. It’s a failure of storytelling – and a failure to accept the ugly, complicated truth.
Although not all is wrong with Mr Jones. The heroic reporter’s youth and idealism are poignantly presented, and the muddy world of politics is efficiently contrasted with the kitsch lifestyles pursued by its worst offenders.
Jones begins at the top of that political ecosystem, but soon realises that he must divert his gaze to the subject of Stalin’s rule – the victims of his brutal oppression – if he is to find any truth worth telling. Holland’s latest film is by no means a successful creative endeavour, implicated by a meandering narrative and weak characterisation, but by reminding us of that great lesson, Mr Jones is an urgent one.