The story of Gareth Jones is such a fascinating one, built on such intrepid, one-man-against-the-system ideals, that it’s a wonder it hasn’t been filmed into oblivion over the past 80 years. A young Welsh journalist who blew the first public whistle on the Holodomor — the man-made famine of 1932-33 in Soviet Ukraine — only to be broadly discredited by his professional peers and murdered before his 30th birthday, he was the quintessential man who knew too much. “Mr. Jones,” Agnieszka Holland’s suitably absorbing but somewhat stuffy biopic, knows too much in a different sense: neophyte screenwriter Andrea Chalupa’s plainly well-researched script is at such pains to put all its fact-finding on the screen that what should be an urgent political thriller proceeds at a bit of a trudge, its human dimensions not always clear in the ultra-low lighting.
A far stricter edit of this baggy 140-minute film would solve a number of its problems, but the good news is that “Mr. Jones” gets better and more soul-stirring as it goes along. After a particularly murky opening act detailing Jones’s embattled time in Britain’s Foreign Office, things slowly gather pace once he heads for Russia, peaking with a staggering, visceral stretch of survivalist drama in the frozen farmlands of Ukraine — where Holland’s aptitude for skin-prickling visual storytelling finally comes to the fore. James Norton’s plucky, deeply invested performance as Jones is good company even when the film around him is at its most opaque; that asset, plus fine supporting work from Peter Sarsgaard and “The Crown” breakout Vanessa Kirby as more questionably embedded Moscow journos, lends luster to a film that rather hides its commercial light under a bushel.
For the film’s first few minutes, some casual viewers may wonder if they’ve inadvertently wandered into a George Orwell biopic instead: The film opens on Joseph Mawle’s ripe impersonation of the socialist author, clattering away at a typewriter as he develops the idea for “Animal Farm.” A separate arc of the film follows how the novel grew from Orwell’s disillusionment with Stalinism, fed in turn by Jones’s findings — an intriguing aspect of the journalist’s legacy, certainly, but presented here in clunkily literal fashion, right down to corny cutaways of a vexed Orwell whittling wooden models of farmyard animals.
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It’s a relief when Jones takes center stage, his valiant lone-wolf credentials established in a scene that finds the 27-year-old — then a foreign advisor to Prime Minister David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham) — laughed out of the room by smoke-belching cabinet ministers when he suggests that war with Nazi Germany is imminent. (As with the Orwell subplot, Chalupa’s script revels in thick applications of dramatic irony.) He loses his Whitehall job, but secures a journalist’s visa to Russia, certain there’s a bigger story to be found there than the mollifying, pro-Stalin reports being churned out by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times writer Walter Duranty (Sarsgaard, cast to slithery perfection). Circumspect British journo Ada Brooks — played by Kirby with vulnerably cracked femme fatale hauteur — offers him sympathetic but ambiguous counsel.
Even Ada doesn’t share Jones’s conviction that Stalin’s brand of socialism is masking mass human suffering beyond the bright lights of Moscow, where Duranty effectively controls global understanding of the region — in between attending to a louche circuit of heroin-fueled society parties. (Chalk up another point the film is loath to make without an extended illustrative set piece.)
Jones’s only recourse is to defy foreign commissar Maxim Litvinov (Krzysztof Pieczynski) and journey to Ukraine himself, where even he is unprepared for the genocidal scale of death and starvation that greets him. His navigation of this ruined winter landscape could be a full film in itself. With Chalupa’s dialogue at last pared to the bone, Holland likewise sheds her fussiest stylistic mannerisms to isolate haunting sensory specifics: the crunch of unpopulated snow, captured in blinding widescreen ribbons by d.p. Tomasz Naumiuk; the piercing wail of an abandoned infant; the palpable cold of every visible surface, raising gooseflesh even in a heated movie theater.
Nothing else in “Mr. Jones” quite matches this haunting, symphonic sequence for sheer emotional impact and narrative intensity, though the perilous aftermath of Jones’ investigation cues a shift into rousing, clenched-fist conspiracy drama. Even when the filmmaking sinks back into relative dourness, Holland and Chalupa deserve credit for not soft-pedaling the politics in a slab of history that could have been blandly packaged as “Imitation Game”-style awards bait, while the film’s expressionist visual style — all vertiginous low angles and vast blankets of shadow, with occasional frantic flurries of handheld lensing — offers challenges of its own. The powerful contemporary resonance of a story that veritably hinges on the dangers of “fake news” and its devastating consequences, meanwhile, hardly needs to be explained. As drama, “Mr. Jones” sometimes struggles to get out of its own way, but its message still lands with concrete force.