David G. Hughes on Agnieszka Holland’s ‘Mr. Jones’ (2019)
“You cannot make an omelette without first breaking some eggs” goes the old adage. Latent in this appetising metaphor rests logic less palatable. Just how many eggs does it take? What if, after breaking innumerable said eggs, the omelette is utterly inedible? Rather than a truism regarding the necessity for voluntary sacrifice within the individual’s life, such wisdom is perverted into the logic of tyrants, a specious recourse for those willing to sacrifice others for ‘the greater good’. It’s this tyranny of wisdom that characterised the fixated state of affairs within the Soviet Union, in which a hypothetical utopia was used to validate all manner of crimes and skulduggery. Even today, apologists for totalitarianism make points of qualification, even with the inconvenient historical reality that utopia never prevailed. The pitfalls of fallacious utopianism are the chief concern of Agnieszka Holland‘s historical drama, Mr. Jones, a captivating depiction of mid-century Soviet authoritarianism that feels suitably old-fashioned in all the right ways.
Concepts such as ‘truth’, ‘heroic’ and ‘moral’ can often seem naive or anachronistic to an influential class of intellectual poseurs. In this climate, it is seldom that a film with unabashed moral clarity emerges out of the miasma of fake news, moral relativism, insatiable whataboutery, and that place where all sorts of crimes and misdemeanours occur — the land of “proper context”. This is the half-hearted defence of Soviet “progress” made by none other than George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) in the film. But faced with an inconvenient reality, he had no choice but to relinquish his Communist sympathies and write the anti-authoritarian opus, Animal Farm (1945), the words of which we hear said aloud intermittently throughout the film as the ink touches the paper for the first time.
It is, according to the film, Mr. Gareth Jones (the handsome James Norton) of Barry, Wales, who was the bearer of bad news for Orwell, Foreign Advisor to David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham) turned heroic journalist in the reportage of the man-made “Holodomor” – The Great Famine of 1932-1933. This is his tale. Initially in awe of the Soviet progress and Revolutionary Communism, Jones enters the Soviet Union with the intention of interviewing Comrade Stalin and learning his secret, maybe even forming an alliance against the threat of Nazism. Only, the secret is darker than what he imagined. In actual fact, upon arriving in a Moscow, there appears to be nothing but secrets and innuendo. Holland and her cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk garner an oppressive sense of historical setting as well as a sinister invisible presence, placing us into a world of whispers and warnings.
Jones soon comes to learn that all is not what it seems. The numbers for the supposedly wonderful Five-Year Plan don’t seem to add up; Jones’ Moscow contact who promised him an earth-shattering story is later found dead on the street; journalists are quite blissfully confined to Moscow, drip-fed news, coddled in prima donna hotels with decadent privileges and hedonistic orgies that recalls the grotesquerie of George Grosz rather than the egalitarian workers paradise promised in Socialist Realism. Holland is perspicacious enough to know that licentious degeneracy is not the liberating enemy of totalitarianism, but the ennui of it, its natural epiphenomenon — likewise displayed in A Clockwork Orange (1971) and J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise (1975) and Cocaine Nights (1996). Most odious amongst them is Walter Duranty (delectably played by Peter Sarsgaard), Pulitzer prize winning Moscow correspondent for The New York Times. Denier of the famine (“a big scare story”; “an exaggeration or malignant propaganda”), bankrolled apologist for Stalin, it was only in 1990 that The New York Times reckoned with the shameless moral cowardice and corruption of its Man in Moscow in response to the publishing of the book Stalin’s Apologist (1990).
It is in response to sinister revelations that Jones’ character, initially quite nebbish, begins to show resolve. Escaping his handler, the further our idealist ventures into the dark heart of Ukraine—”Europe’s Bread Basket”—the more he comes to learn that not only Paradise not taken root, but Hell has taken its place. The Welshman is depicted as an extremely likeable and courageous seeker of truth, a Brit of conviction in the face of endemic corruption and systemic delusion. Sporting round bifocals is the only one who sees clearly. You’d be right to detect a hint of Steven Spielberg in Mr. Jones’ masterful treatment of history, in which normal men elevated by honest-to-goodness moral clarity perform heroic acts, as in Schindler’s List (1993), Bridge of Spies (2015) and The Post (2017). Go further back, and you see the influence of David Lean too — Spielberg’s own hero. Some may guffaw at any “populist” narrative influence on Europe’s “complex” past, but it’s also the thing that keeps Mr. Jones clear-headed, heartfelt and resolute as storytelling, in ways that forgettable depictions of Soviet atrocities failed, such as Child 44 (2015) and Bitter Harvest (2016). According to Anne Applebaum, author of Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, “The crimes of Communism never penetrated into popular culture or the popular imagination.” Mr. Jones looks to rectify that, using the popular form to communicate this forgotten history to unfamiliar audiences. Surely it’s about time that cinema effectively reckoned with Soviet Russia as it has done so frequently with Nazi Germany.
We, as moderns, know the reality of the Soviet Empire now in large part due to Gareth Jones and others who followed him. The great chutzpah of Mr. Jones isn’t necessarily its depiction of awful horror (although it does that effectively), but the manner in which it depicts psychological confirmation bias and the creeping realisation of what is. In our partisan times, the idea that your political preferences could be wrong is too little considered. Holland, veteran Polish filmmaker who grew up behind the Wall, is here like a wise Grandma to bash us complacent ideologues over the head. Mr. Jones is the blunt stick she uses, but it’s a welcome telling-off — beating into us the perils of utopianism, projection and partisanship. It’s a blow to our ego, and that’s the humbling point. Holland, as a tough female filmmaker, is taking aim at male hubris: the over-emphasis on “logical” utopia, “productivity” in human society as the source of flourishing. Stalin, the Man of Steel, is the totemic zenith of this terror, but that tendency exists in all our hearts. “Men came and thought that they could change nature’s laws”, one starving Ukrainian tells Jones.
This is a story about the vital importance of the word spoken in truth and what one pays for the courageous removal of the ideological veil. Jones was eventually assassinated for reporting the truth (Lloyd George paid tribute in this way: “Mr Gareth Jones knew too much of what was going on… “), while Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize remains unrevoked to this day. Mr. Jones allows us to re-experience the injustice and feel the moral outrage. Only, unlike many other politically-partisan films, Holland gives us no direction to point it at. In Mr. Jones liberals will see allusions to President Trump and his maddening crusade against “Fake News”. Conservatives will see threats from the left and its amnesiac apologism for Communism. Both are true, but both also miss the point. Mr. Jones sits above the parapet to show us the folly of wilful ignorance wherever it is found. We are left only to direct the despair inwards.
Yet, Mr. Jones is not nihilistic; it is, in fact, the opposite of nihilism. While extensive injustice is ruminated upon, truth remains firm. This is likely why some have accused the film of its own dogmatism, but surely any attempt to avoid nihilism involves a degree of empirical value judgement? But who is it that wants to live in a value-less cinema? So it is that Mr. Jones asks us a question: if we are all so enlightened that we cannot bring ourselves to celebrate the simple values and acts of Gareth Jones, what, if anything, can we value? Far from enlightenment, that’s the call to re-live dark days.
Screened as part of the 69th Berlin International Film Festival and in UK cinemas wide 7 February 2020.
You can read our interview with director Agnieszka Holland here.