Monday, October 11, 2021

Moral Poetry: Mr. Jones

James Norton in Mr. Jones (2019).

Since most new movies since the lockdown have shown up on the ever-expanding list of streaming platforms rather than as theatrical releases, it has been even more difficult for film buffs to locate good work that is off the beaten path. I’ve tried to cover some interesting new pictures over the last year and a half like The Traitor, Martin Eden, The Jesus Rolls and Miss Juneteenth, but I missed Agnieszka Holland’s Mr. Jones, which is truly remarkable. Its protagonist is the Welshman Gareth Jones (played by James Norton), who, having been let go from his position as foreign advisor (on Russia) to the Liberal Party leader and former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), pursued a career as a journalist, acquiring press credentials in Moscow and breaking the story of Stalin’s hushed-up man-made famine in the Ukraine. Among the plethora of newsworthy stories from this dense, dynamic era, the Holodomor (or Terror-Famine) in the Ukraine is still one of the least known. (A 2017 film, Bitter Harvest, by the German director George Mendeluk covers the event but is really a romantic melodrama with the famine as its setting.) And Jones’s dangerous pursuit of a most inconvenient truth while much of the liberal world was still in thrall to the great socialist experiment is a tale of heroism with which most people aren’t familiar. En route to the Ukraine, Jones slipped away from his Soviet caretaker to investigate on his own; the Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times, Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), had been covering up the true state of affairs in order to ingratiate himself with Stalin, and according to Andrea Chalupa’s screenplay the reporter who put Jones onto the story (Marcin Czarnik) was murdered. Jones, whose mother had worked as a tutor in the Ukraine before marrying his father, embedded himself among the desperate population and saw their suffering first-hand, but the imprisonment and threatened execution of six innocent English engineers was Stalin’s means of extorting his silence. Eventually – after the engineers were freed – he managed to publish the story, against tremendous opposition, in the Hearst papers, and died under mysterious circumstances while working on another story a couple of years later. (He’s thought to have been murdered by Russian spies as an act of retaliation.)

I’ve liked some of the Polish-born filmmaker Holland’s movies – certainly Europa Europa and also The Secret Garden and parts of Washington Square – and I’ve been impressed by her intelligence and her attraction to thorny, unconventional material even though it doesn’t always pan out. But this is the first time I’ve had the sense at one of her films that I was looking at the work of an artist. Holland does something extremely difficult in Mr. Jones: she filters a modern political horror story through the vision of a poet. Even the most potent and distinctive political movies of the last several years – Foxtrot from Israel, A War from Denmark, 1945 from Hungary, Quo Vadis, Aida? from Yugoslavia – haven’t quite done that. (1945, a post-Holocaust fable that evoked Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s great drama The Visit, came closest.) Until Jones detrains in the Ukraine, Mr. Jones is decidedly a slice of historical realism, though the sequence where, crowded in a car with peasants who turn a gimlet eye on him when he cuts himself a snack and pounce on his discards, feels increasingly like a bridge to a sort of darkness that realism doesn’t normally serve. It’s a foreshadowing of what is the centerpiece of the film: a mournful segment, marked with interludes of surrealism, where time has apparently been suspended and the twisted, frozen landscape seems to be inhabited mostly by children with piercing, angelic voices and ghostly faces and time has apparently been suspended. This section is devastating, but the grimness of the narrative is transcended, if not leavened, by the lyricism of the filmmaking. (The exquisite cinematography is by Tomasz Naumiuk.) One scene echoes the staggering climax of Ichikawa’s unforgettable World War II drama Fires on the Plain but personalizes it.

James Norton’s portrait of Gareth Jones is one of those displays of British acting chops that tends to leave North Americans simultaneously dazzled and perplexed, where technique is so deeply ingrained that it simply disappears. Between my first viewing of Mr. Jones last spring and my second a few days ago, I happened to catch Norton as a sociopathic rapist and murderer on the terrific English TV series Happy Valley, and you can’t believe it’s the same actor: even his facial muscles seem to be working differently. (A friend keeps urging me to check out Norton as Andrei in the 2016 television adaptation of War and Peace.) The exotic, sharp-witted Vanessa Kirby, the original Princess Margaret on The Crown, plays Ada Brooks, who works under Duranty and just misses a romantic relationship with Gareth. It’s a complex piece of acting, an expression of a perceptive, self-flagellating sensibility. She has one scene, where Duranty extorts a false statement out of her, that you can’t get out of your head – which is the hallmark of much of this movie. Sarsgaard is good as usual, though his performance is hobbled by an unfortunate scene where, hosting a decadent party (at which Gareth is the odd man out), he has to stalk around naked except for a G-string and a crutch.

Chalupa has written an admirably clear script – not a minor feat considering the denseness of the political material – with strongly delineated characters. The smartest thing he does is to use as a frame a series of scenes where George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) reads aloud from the manuscript of his 1945 Animal Farm. Jones and Orwell meet in London after Jones returns from the Ukraine, and like so many who hoped fervently for a humane alternative to capitalism, Orwell is reluctant to accept Jones’s insistent claim that the Russian experiment is a lie. (Millions of Ukrainians died in 1932 and 1933.) You can see Orwell, who was famously possessed of a gift for accepting unpleasant truths, struggling between his natural skepticism and the remnants of his last fling at idealism. Animal Farm, of course, was his satirical exposé of the Soviet Union; its inclusion in Mr. Jones represents an ultimate alliance with Gareth Jones and the triumph of moral clarity.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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