Based on real-life events, Mr Jones is the story of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones who, after gaining fame by interviewing Adolf Hitler, journeys to the USSR under the auspices of doing the same to Joseph Stalin. However, when faced with the brutalities and contradictions of life under communism, he embarks on a one-man mission to uncover the realities of Stalin’s Holodomor and atrocities committed in the Ukraine.
The praise heaped upon Mr. Jones is difficult to quibble with. Director Agnieszka Holland has a keen grasp of tone, structure, and maintains a deftness of touch that keeps her visuals sumptuous without ever verging into cliché. Meanwhile, the cast, especially James Norton as Jones and Vanessa Kirby as the cryptic Ada Brooks are both good in their challenging roles. Moreover, the artistic direction, especially the use of starkly contrasting monochrome in the winter scenes, is inspired and a testament to the abilities of Art Director Fiona Gavin. To look at, Mr. Jones is a triumph!
What flaws there are in Mr. Jones take place in the writing, the inconsistency of which lets the picture down. While some of the dialogue feels clunky and unnecessary, it is the choice of and characterisation of the film’s villain, Pulitzer Prize-winner Walter Duranty, played by Peter Sarsgaard that stops Mr. Jones from reaching greatness. There are moments, particularly near the conclusion, that Sarsgaard delivers his lines like a panto villain – which makes sense because that’s how some of them are written.
In addition, the choice of the sneaky and traitorous Duranty as the film’s main villain feels easy and could even be described, if one were feeling particularly negatively disposed towards Mr. Jones, as a cop-out. Pinning the villainous aspects of the picture on a British-American journalist allows the real bad guy of the story of Gareth Jones, the ideology of the Soviet Union, and its vile leadership, to blend into the staging and escape without the scrutiny that the story demands.
However, this flaw, glaring as it may be, is not enough to discourage a recommendation of Mr. Jones as a film. It is still a thrilling experience that is at once a great study of journalism, a delicious visual treat, and a Cold War spy thriller of the kind that there really aren’t enough of. It’s length, at 141 minutes, might put some more casual fans of the genre off but it shouldn’t deter the more avid cinema-goer.
@Filmhouse, Edinburgh until Thu 13 Feb 2020