Agnieszka Holland’s latest film is not only a spectacular biography and a story of the tragedy of the Terror-Famine but also an important voice in the discussion about the contemporary world, politics, and media. The film is classical through and through but not free of technical shortcomings.
In 1933, Gareth Jones went to Russia. He wanted to conduct an interview with Stalin and to go to Ukraine to find his mother’s birthplace. He did not manage to get his interview but he was the first journalist from the West to describe the Holodomor – the Terror-Famine – a humanitarian crisis which Stalin brought on Ukraine and which cost the country several million lives. Instead of journalistic awards, Jones was showered in a wave of disapproval: the British authorities distanced themselves from his revelations and other journalists, corrupted and intimidated by Stalin, undermined his credibility. It took 80 years for the story of the Welsh journalist to end up on the silver screen, thanks to Agnieszka Holland.
The Post-truth World
OBYWATEL JONES – pierwszy fragment najnowszego filmu Agnieszki Holland
It might seem that by directing a film about the Holodomor, the Polish director creates a story about history. However, her Mr. Jones instead turns out to be a story which is very contemporary and not devoid of journalistic character.
In Holland’s hands, Jones’ story changes into a film about the hypocrisy of politicians who cynically fight for power instead of values. In the era of fake news and post-politics, Mr. Jones can and should be read as an attack on the politics of the likes of Putin, Trump and European populists, but also as an accusation thrown in the faces of Western elites who do not fight for their values.
Mr. Jones is also self-referential – it tells of the professional obligations of journalism and art. Holland speaks very clearly on this matter – artists are supposed to tell the truth and wake people up from their false dreams. Especially when the truth is bitter, unprofitable and nobody wants to hear it.
Orwell of the Modern Times
One of the film’s visual leitmotifs is the image of a running train – a symbol of history sweeping through the world regardless of what’s in its path. In the key scene, the protagonist played by James Norton leaves a luxury train in which he’s travelling under the supervision of the ‘guardian angel’ assigned to him and switches to another wagon nearby. This one does not have windows and is filled with hungry, poor people. The world of elitist fictions clashes with the brutality of real life.
Here starts the protagonist’s road to self-awareness, the painful process of confronting the truth. Holland shows that it is the elites’ obligation to leave the comfortable first-class wagon and to notice those who were not lucky enough to board it. This is the only way to change the world.
Antoni Komasa Łazarkiewicz
By telling of a meeting between good and evil, Holland plays with a marked deck of cards. It is especially clear in the manner of how the casting for the main characters was done. James Norton, playing Jones, has the face of an innocent, honest friend. When hidden behind glasses, he resembles Clark Kent from the comics. However, he does not have any superheroic qualities – he is ordinary, a little naïve and not fully conscious of the rules that govern the world which he enters. He is the ideal representative of the viewers, who also have to find their place in the story about the tragedy of the Holodomor.
While Norton and the accompanying Vanessa Kirby (known from The Crown TV series) are quite good in their roles, Peter Sarsgaard is not. This excellent actor was cast in a role which fits his previous roles too well. While playing Walter Durant, a broken and corrupt journalist, he gets close to self-parody and does not try to defend his character at all.
Holland’s script also leaves something to be desired. Even though its author, Andrea Serdaru Barbul, tries to subject Jones’ story to the classic three-act structure, her film loses its dramatic buoyancy over and over again and runs aground in terms of storytelling. The turning points which are supposed to catapult the protagonist and the viewer in the direction of a new story do not bring new energy and the hero’s dilemmas are, unfortunately, resolved too quickly. Even when the lives of other people are at stake, Jones makes the correct decisions in the blink of an eye – as if there was absolutely no weight to them. The viewers also do not feel this weight, which is why Mr. Jones engages them far less than it should. This is especially visible in the first half of the film, which feels like a dragged-out exposition.
Even though Agnieszka Holland leads her story with a steady hand and skilfully takes us through it, Mr. Jones sometimes resembles a light reading piece devoid of strong artistic vision and personal style. The Polish directors’ film lacks moments of acceleration and breaks from the linear narrative. Without these elements, Jones’ drama defends itself more as a metaphor of the modern world than a story about a man of flesh and blood, his drama and downright suicidal courage.
- Mr. Jones (Obywatel Jones). Director: Agnieszka Holland. Screenplay: Andrea Serdaru Barbul. Cinematography: Tomasz Naumiuk. Music: Antoni Komasa-Łazarkiewicz. Cast: James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard, Krzysztof Pieczyński, Patrycja Volny.
Originally written in Polish by Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translated by PG, Feb 2019