Agnieska Holland’s Mr. Jones is a film with a clear political message: the crimes of Stalinism must not be neglected and forgotten.
It’s based on a real story. Welsh journalist Gareth Jones travels to the Soviet Union in the early 1930s to investigate the success of Stalin’s five-year plan. Instead, he uncovers a mass operation of fake news generated by journalists and finds his way to Ukraine, to be witness to the man-made famine of Holodomor, which killed millions.
The film is heavy on contrasts between prosperity and hellish destitution. Upon his arrival in Moscow, Jones meets Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Walter Duranty, the New York Times Russian correspondent, whom Jones finds living a frivolous and extravagant life in Moscow, bank-rolled by the Stalinist government.
The limited tour of the USSR Jones is given with the bureaucrat class is one of comfort and leisure. In one scene Jones, in a plush train, gets his guiding Soviet official drunk off an endless supply of vodka. After the official falls asleep, he jumps on a nearby train. The film immediately turns to monochrome as he finds himself in a bare wooden train filled with emaciated Ukrainan peasants. As he peels an orange all eyes turn to him before people dive to the floor when he throws his scraps.
Jones wanders into a devastated village and discovers the reality of Stalinism and the extreme survival practices that people in the countryside were driven to. He sees bodies of those starved to death on the streets, and passers-by walking on to fight over the meagre aid brought in by the government. The camera then fans up to reveal a mural of Stalin heroically holding bounds of wheat, the only burst of colour for ages.
I thought the film made the mistake of relying too heavily on melodrama and sensationalism. Especially so with the secondary story about George Orwell writing Animal Farm, a staunchly anti-Stalinist allegory about the Russian Revolution and Stalinism.
The film suggests Orwell named the character Mr. Jones, the abusive human farmer who represents Czar Nicholas II, after Gareth Jones. It’s strange that a biopic meant to create a positive legacy for Gareth Jones would draw a connection towards such a nasty character. Perhaps this is wilful ignorance for dramatic effect, perhaps a total misunderstanding of Animal Farm.
The film is sprinkled with these on-the-nose depictions of the USSR as Orwellian, like a western journalist calling a Stalinist official watching her “big brother”.
Perhaps the most frustrating scene for Orwell fans is when the film imagines a lunch with Jones and Orwell where Jones’s findings from the Ukraine seem to shatter all of Orwell’s socialist ideals and leave him upset and confused.
In fact Jones and Orwell never met. although Jones’s work must have had some impact on Orwell, it was when fighting in the Spanish Civil War a few years later that he would form seriously anti-Stalinist politics.
Gareth Jones’s story and the horrors faced by the victims of Holodomor were unimaginable enough that they need no exaggeration or dramatic frame with Animal Farm.
The film as such is not outstanding, but it’s important that filmmakers delve more into these less explored tragedies of Stalinism.