It can be a terrible burden to be able to see the future, particularly when the rest of the world seems blind to the present. Seldom has that fact been more sobering than it is in Agnieszka Holland’s urgent but disjointed “Mr. Jones,” the true (and somewhat unknown) story of a young man who was cursed with the ability to see what was coming next, as well as the determination to recognize the full horror of what was already there.
An ill-conceived prologue notwithstanding, Holland’s well-intentioned and characteristically unsentimental thriller begins in a musty corner of 1933, where a wide-eyed young Welsh journalist named Gareth Jones is convinced that Adolf Hitler poses a serious threat to the rest of the world. Played by an earnest James Norton (who offsets his natural good looks with a pronounced streak of “do the right thing” dorkiness), Jones is laughed off by the other, more elder advisors to former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who think the lad an overeager worrywart. Never mind that Jones has just interviewed Hitler on the Nazi leader’s private aircraft and was so alarmed by the conversation that he wondered how many lives would be spared if the plane fell out of the sky; the Great War has already happened, and the world is only spinning forward.
Jones isn’t convinced. He sees rot setting in throughout Europe, and worries that the continent isn’t as strong as it seems — that Hitler is in a position to claim it with precious little resistance. Suspicious of the Soviet economy’s miraculous growth and the hype around Stalin’s policies of collectivization, the plucky writer asks George to help arrange an interview with the Man of Steel himself (the one from the Caucasus, not the one from Krypton). Jones is promptly fired.
But history isn’t made by those who take “no” for an answer; the most difficult truths aren’t discovered by those who are comfortable with living a lie. And so Jones forges some papers and heads off to the myopic utopia of Moscow, where a journalist has just been shot in the back and nothing is quite what it seems. There, he meets a bacchanalian Pulitzer-winner (a hobbled and often pants-less Peter Sarsgaard) who reports that Stalin is the greatest Soviet this side of Stravinsky. And — in one of several instances where the film hesitantly reaches for a Carol Reed kind of noir — Jones also crosse paths with a cold and beautiful writer named Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), who warns our dauntless hero that his fears are better founded than anyone would like him to believe. Money doesn’t come from nowhere; someone is always paying for it. In this case, perhaps millions of poor someones across the Ukrainian border, where rumors of famine are being muffled under machine gun fire.
Holland, known for controversially inserting a measure of moral ambiguity into some of the starkest atrocities of the 20th century (see “Europa Europa” or “In Darkness” for more detail), takes a very different tact here. In contrast to her usual approach, she forges her way through Jones’ saga with a firm sense of right and wrong; there are not — as some characters argue — many truths, but only one, and the director intends to find it. Given that first-time writer Andrea Chalupa conceived “Mr. Jones” more than 15 years ago, and that Holland went into pre-production before Donald Trump turned “Fake News” into a modern version of Orwellian doublespeak, perhaps these two women share Jones’ burdensome prescience. Or maybe they just couldn’t find a more compellingly nuanced way into this story.
Which isn’t to say that there are two legitimate sides to Stalin’s Holodomor, an engineered food shortage that claimed the lives of somewhere between three and eight million people. But rather that “Mr. Jones” is stymied by the clarity of its hero’s crusade. Exasperatingly scattershot for most of its long running time, this restless and misshapen film suggests its director’s nagging discomfort with a straightforward history lesson; from the head-scratcher of a framing device to the herky jerky way that Jones’ peripatetic journey shifts between genres, Holland’s movie rarely has the patience to let the facts take root.
Case in point: It’s not enough for George Orwell to be an implied conduit between two centuries of government-engineered gas-lighting, he has to appear as an actual character in the script (played by a somber Joseph Mawle, aka Benjen Stark). “Mr. Jones” opens with Orwell writing “Animal Farm,” and explaining how the purity of a fable is necessary to cut through a mess of falsehoods. It’s a clumsy start for a film that never really finds its footing, and Orwell’s reintroduction some two hours later only serves as an unneeded obstacle between Holland and her point.
There are several moments along the way when “Mr. Jones” threatens to find its focus and reflect the full horror of what’s at stake, but the film’s noir-like plot keeps pushing the story deeper into the heart of a conspiracy that’s even more obvious to us than it ever was to Jones. The second act scenes between Norton and Kirby crackle with the tension of two people who could have been together in another life, but there are bigger fish to fry, and Ada Brooks gets lost somewhere between a femme fatale and a sultry fount of exposition. Sarsgaard can play a slime ball in his sleep, and while his character is an effectively damning antecedent to the access journalism of today, you don’t have to know Cyrillic to read him like an open book.
Holland has always been able to see in the dark, and so it’s no surprise that “Mr. Jones” reaches more solid ground once it transitions from suggesting horrors, to depicting them. The film recasts itself as a frozen, post-apocalyptic nightmare when Jones talks his way into the Ukraine (where foreigners are usually forbidden), and then escapes from his escort for a first-hand look at the Holomodor. This brutal stretch — the longest the film spends in any one place — paints an affectingly bleak portrait of a man-made genocide. Food is the only thing more scarce than color, an idea that takes hold when Jones eats a radiant orange in a desaturated train car full of starving people; the ravenous around him evokes a Romero movie.
Jones is fired at within seconds of leaving the station, and flees into a tundra ruled by a roving gang of children. Stiff corpses line the streets. The average meal consists of blackened tree bark. When that runs out, the locals turn to… other food supplies. It’s a hauntingly delirious trip into hell, evocative enough to suggest that Jones’ story might have been more powerful with less context. It’s the sole part of the film in which the focus is evenly split between the character and the story that he was so desperate to expose. And, thanks to the white snow and spare environments, it’s also the sole part of the film that isn’t shot in the under-lit and erratic handheld style that Holland uses to obscure the simplicity of the truth.
This is an explicit call to action for a new generation of journalists — a film meant to inspire the bravery they’ll need to unearth our world’s ugliest facts. But given Holland’s determination to lionize Jones as a hero, it’s ironic that “Mr. Jones” only makes him feel like one at his most helpless.
“Mr. Jones” premiered at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.