Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The Cinematic Grammar of Prophecy – Dune: Part One

Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in Dune (2021).

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One, co-written with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, has many shortcomings. But it succeeds nevertheless because it gets the most important thing right: the mood. Namely, the mood of prophesied destiny. And it’s hard to imagine a more fitting adaptation.

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.)