FILM REVIEW: Mr. Jones. The 20th Century’s greatest cover up

James Norton as Mr Jones

‘Mr Jones’ is an old-fashioned “news-hound” thriller, set in an age where reporters actually went into the danger zone in search of the truth. Set in the Soviet Union in the winter of 1933, a brooding and fearful atmosphere constantly simmers just beneath the surface.

The film tells of a Welsh Journalist, Gareth Jones, who, fresh from interviewing Adolf Hitler, travels to the Soviet Union on a mission to interview Stalin. It follows Jones to the Ukraine where he discovers a holocaust in progress. Jones’s horror at the terrifying discovery of what became known as The Holodomor where millions of Ukrainians died in Stalin’s genocidal famine, is compounded by a widespread and powerful web of collaborators and facilitators who work to suppress the truth.

The film starts with Jones listening to a communist radio broadcast proclaiming the success of the Communist five-year plan of industrialisation. In the context of a world recession this “spending spree” just doesn’t make sense to Jones, and he determines to travel to Russia to inquire. His boss, British minister, Lloyd George, discourages his inquiry for obvious geo-political reasons; just before he fires him.

Arriving in Russia he meets with New York Times editor, Walter Duranty, brilliantly portrayed in the film by Peter Saarsgard as a cold and unsympathetic ideologue, and a polemicist committed to the vision of a communist utopia.

He is the polar opposite to Jones in every way. Whilst Jones, a freelance journalist, searches for truth, Duranty uses the might of the NYT organisation to push an agenda of lies. The real life Duranty actually got a Pulitzer Prize for his monumental cover up of the Holodomor Genocide.

Despite a disarming lack of cynicism, Jones proves adept at deceit when needed. He fools a Soviet minister into believing he is a foreign advisor to Lloyd George, and manages to get an invite to a tour of the Ukrainian factories. He escapes from his handler on the train and vanishes into the Ukrainian winter where the full horrors of the Holodomor are revealed to him.

A fugitive in the vast expanse of snow-locked Ukraine, he must find food and escape so he can reveal the truth to the world.

Throughout the film there is a sense that Jones is in over his head. It’s a narrative trick which enhances the tension, as the plot is revealed to the viewer moments before it dawns on Jones. Seeing Jones, who is clearly an intelligent and capable man, discover the enormity of what surrounds him is a sometimes queasy and always tense experience.

The film contains a number of compelling scenes which evoke this tension.

In one scene, Jones helps a group of orphaned children gather wood for cooking. Back at their house he shares a meal with them.

In their cabin there are three empty-eyed children and Jones sitting around a stove. The eldest child, a wraith like girl, hands a bowl to Jones, and to her sister before sitting down herself. The youngest watches it all passively but doesn’t ask for his share. He looks different; less intent than his elder siblings; and immediately you wonder why he doesn’t take food.

Jones greedily starts eating the meat, and asks “where did you get this”

The girl replies “Kolya”

Watching the film, we suspect we know why the youngest didn’t take any.

Jones: “Who is Kolya.

Girl: “our brother”

Jones:“your older brother?”

The girl nods

“Your brother is a hunter?” Jones asks.

No answer

Jones: “Where is Kolya”

The girl is now silent.


Watching the truth dawn on Jones is fascinating and disturbing. In the silence the younger girl glances towards the back of the cabin and Jones walks in the direction of her gaze. In the snow outside the door lies the body of a child.

The film plays on a tension between the enormity of the truth that is slowly revealed to Jones, and the danger that it places Jones in. The nature of truth and deception is a constant theme which infiltrates every relationship in the film. Duranty builds his own version of truth; The British Foreign Service need to create an illusion of Russia to counter the rising National Socialists in Germany; and Jones seeks desperately to uncover the truth beneath the lies.

This central issue is discussed between Jones and NYT columnist Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), just before he departs for the Ukraine.

“What’s your agenda?” she asks.

Jones: “To get the truth”

Brooks: “Whose truth”

Jones: “The truth. There is only one kind”

Jones’s struggle with the revealed truth are mirrored in another memorable scene involving George Orwell, who was then an up and coming author. When Jones tells his story (which was quickly dismissed as wild fantasy by Duranty and the world press) Orwell is visibly disturbed. He struggles with Jones’s revelations, and in a state of cognitive dissonance he asks is it really true.

In this we get a glimpse of the genius of Orwell. Recognising that such a strange tale could be told but would hardly be believed, he tries to come up with another way of telling it. The film opens with a scene of Orwell writing to Jones and explaining that the only way he could relay the moral lessons of a tale so strange and unbelievable, was to tell it through talking farm animals.

Mr. Jones is shot in a cool toned colour pallet. Slightly blue and aged tones create a tense look, with one contrasting scene in lurid yellows; a debauched party set in Duranty’s Moscow apartment. The bleak scenes of the Ukrainian snow locked winter is a suitable metaphorical setting for the silence and emptiness of the famine-deserted villages of the Holodomor.

Many of these scenes are shot in an eerily silent twilight. Some of these are masterful and surreal, such as a sudden encounter with a wolf in a snow drift at the edge of a village. Jones stops suddenly in the gloaming, and for a moment it looks as if both he and the wolf are eyeing the other up and considering their chances of a meal. The wolf lopes off and Jones, it seems, considers following.



Mr Jones is available to stream on NOWTV

(Dir. Agnieszka Holland, 2019)



Lorcán Mac Mathúna 

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