As another Russian dictator uses Ukrainian grain as a weapon of war, this 2020 historical thriller is worth a watch, writes Ellin Stein

Timing is all. You would have thought a film based on the true story of a ruthless Russian dictator’s attempts to subdue the population of Ukraine, seize their land and commandeer the country’s grain reserves for political purposes with devastating results would have attracted a certain amount of comment.

Especially since it stars James Norton as the crusading reporter who fought to bring the full horror unfolding in Ukraine to the West’s attention. And because it portrays Western client journalists who soft-pedalled the tragic consequences at best and actively spread disinformation at worst, all for career advantage.

And yet, when Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s Mr Jones was released in 2020, it created only a moderate buzz in the English-speaking world.

But, had it come out in 2022, when the world’s attention was on Ukraine, things might have been so different – if only because of the light it sheds on the roots of Ukrainians’ ferocious determination to resist Russian aggression. 

These lie in the Holodomor, the Kremlin-engineered famine arising out of the relentless collectivisation of farming in the early 1930s that killed at least four million people – a historical episode as freighted with sorrow and rage in Ukraine as the Holocaust or the Armenian Genocide are in other central European communities.

The audience discovers the truth through the eyes of Gareth Jones (Norton), an idealistic, academically-gifted but somewhat unworldly Cambridge graduate from the Valleys. After being laid-off as Lloyd George’s foreign policy advisor, Jones applies for a visa to visit Russia as a journalist although he doesn’t know what story he’s looking for beyond an explanation of how Russia is able to go on a weapons and industrialisation spending spree in the middle of the Great Depression.

When he asks his Moscow-based journalist friend Paul Kleb to help him get an interview with Stalin, he is advised to contact Walter Duranty, The New York Times’ powerful Moscow bureau chief. The smooth, well-connected Duranty (Peter Skarsgard, oozing urbane reptilian charm) takes Jones under his wing, confiding the source of Russia’s wealth is grain – “Stalin’s gold” – the production of which has doubled, he says, thanks to the USSR’s five-year plan.

Jones strikes up a friendship with Duranty’s assistant Ada Brooks, who tells him that Klebs was killed as he was about to leave for Ukraine. Jones manoeuvres his way into getting permission to go to the region and manages to lose his Kremlin minder by getting off the train 40 miles before their destination, walking the rest of the way through a snowy hellscape of people fighting over a crust of bread, bodies lying in the road where they fell, and live babies being tossed onto carts of corpses along with their dead mothers. Meanwhile, sacks of grain are loaded onto trucks for transport to Moscow

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(In real life, Jones visited 22 villages, interviewing farmers who were starving and dying and talked to hundreds of peasants in Russian, carefully recording their conversations).

After more harrowing encounters and being jailed by the Soviet authorities, Jones makes it back to Britain, where he asserts that famine is the result of deliberate state policy.

This call to action brings Jones nothing but trouble. After his mentor Lloyd George disowns him, insisting he retract the story, and Duranty demolishes his credibility in The New York Times, a broken and ostracised Jones returns to Wales, where eventually he tracks down visiting newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and gets Hearst to publish his eye-witness accounts in several US papers.

Duranty, meanwhile, wins a Pulitzer Prize and is lionised as the architect of the US’ belated recognition of the USSR in 1933.

Unfortunately, the power of the true story is not translated into compelling drama.

Debut screenwriter Andrea Chalupa is an excellent journalist of Ukrainian extraction and an expert on authoritarianism who has done sterling work exposing the corruption of the Donald Trump administration and media complicity (as the co-host of the Gaslit Nation podcast) but she approaches the script as a journalist, marshalling compelling evidence to persuade the viewer to her point of view.

As a result, there are too many talky scenes setting out opposing arguments rather than engaging us emotionally in duelling relationship dynamics. Drama works by involving our emotions more than our brains. In this respect, the film only really comes alive during Jones’ virtually wordless trek across the famine-struck wasteland.

The superbly spiky Vanessa Kirby does her best to make Ada believable, but the character is under-written and seems to have been introduced mostly to represent the views of idealistic Western Communist sympathisers who saw Stalin as a counter-weight to Hitler’s power and so didn’t want to believe that he was similarly tyrannical (and to convince us the teetotal Jones is not immune to all urges). 

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The other problem lies in the characterisation of Jones himself. He is entirely admirable – courageous, hard-working, committed to truth and fighting for the underdog, and with no hidden agendas. Such people are wonderful in real life, but narrative fiction needs protagonists who have to struggle to overcome their flaws and are driven by occasionally self-destructive impulses.

As a result, Duranty steals every scene he’s in, especially one reminiscent of The Rocky Horror Show where the newly-arrived Jones, Brad to Duranty’s Frank N Furter, finds himself at a wild polyamorous party complete with scantily-clad ladies injecting heroin, as the host, wearing only a leather G-string (Times bureau chiefs were certainly more colourful in those days) tries to get him to loosen up.

One is left with the feeling that the film would have been so much more compelling had this complicated, morally compromised anti-hero – Duranty spent his 20s organising Satanic orgies in Paris with occultist and libertine Aleister Crowley – been at its centre. Chulapa, in fact, felt the same (it was Holland who insisted on making Jones the centre of the story). “The more I started digging into this guy to get answers,” she said, “the more I was thinking, my God, he would make an incredible film.”

A 1990 New York Times review of a biography of Duranty described him as “a man untainted by so much as the spectre of a belief in any political or humanistic ideal, solely motivated by the goal of his own celebrity” – which makes him sound not unlike another journalist with an elastic approach to the truth and a penchant for accommodating autocrats if it helps his career.

Meanwhile, another Russian dictator is using Ukrainian grain as a weapon of war, condemning thousands to starvation and death. So, whatever its flaws, this warning from history could not be more timely.

Mr Jones’ is available to watch on Amazon Prime and BFI Player

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