Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 28, 2021 4:23 pm 
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A heroic young journalist

In 1932 a young Welsh journalist, Garreth Jones (James Norton), an advisor to Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham) who has just interviewed Hitler, is scoffed at by a bunch of British venerable big shots when he says the German leader means war. Seeking further perspective, the ambitious Jones now decides on his own to go to Moscow to interview Stalin. In Moscow, he can't meet Stalin. He learns there is a big story elsewhere - Ukraine. He goes there, breaking all the rules - foreign journalists are confined to Moscow, where the Pulitzer-winner New York Times journalist Walter Daranty (Peter Sarsgaard) reigns and gives louche "Masque of the Red Death" parties and Jones's closese young associate has just been shot in the back. He meets a beautiful, haunted young woman called Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby) who tells him his fears are justifies. Getting to Ukraine by train in the dead of winter he finds the golden bread basket of the USSR turned to a wasteland where millions are starving. He brings back this secret and writes a story about it. Everyone denies it. Eventually he sells it to William Randolph Hearst (Matthew Marsh) and then it's in all the British papers.

The very dark sequences in this powerful movie of Ukraine's famine are haunting and terrifying. They can give you nightmares. This is the best movie about a journalist discovering a story that has to be told that you may ever see. The whole story behind all this can be learned elsewhere. Stalin's effort to forced collectivisation of agriculture by imposing communist collective farming on Ukraine was an utter failure, and he chose to punish the Ukrainians by starving them, in effect carrying out mass murder. The atrocity is known as The Holodomor, also the Terror-Famine or the Great Famine. Estimates of how many died in it have ranged from three to eleven million. It was horrible. People wandered the countryside hunting for scraps of food, dropping dead everywhere. We see a horsecart used to gather dead bodies. On the way there in the lowest class train car as Jones drops a piece of bread people jump and scuffle for it. He himself nearly starves.

The venerable and versatile Polish filmmaker (episodes of "The Wire," Washington Square, Europa Europa) has made a film about Garreth Jones and what he discovered that has mind-bending sweep. It is anchored by the sterling quality of Welsh actor James Norton playing a fearless young man fluent in both Russian and Welsh, and balanced by the creepiness of the Times journalist Daranty played by Sarsgaard, a man with a limp and an elegant cane who was evidently paid to be part of Stalin's propaganda machine. Or was it just that in the Great Depression Russia was needed by the West?

How could something like this go on? Could anything like this happen today - or would smart phones and social media make it impossible? One suspects that Russia is a vast place where dark secrets lurk to this day.

It's understood that Jones's revelation was an inspiration behind George Orwell's parable Animal Farm and threaded through the film is a sequence of Orwell (Joseph Mawle) penning lines from the book, with Orwell and Jones, who may be the source of the book's "Mr. Jones", meeting in a restaurant toward the end. The real Jones, we learn, never made it quite to his thirtieth birthday. He was murdered by a Soviet undercover cop while pursuing a story in Inner Mongolia. That kind of journalism is a higher calling.

Some criticize this film for the interpolated Orwell passages, including the favorable Anthony Lane (Metascore 80%), who thinks if Holland has "faith" in her "narrative," "why should it need an extra boost?" Indeed these moments do not seem necessary. But in this vast film they seem mere pauses for breath and do no harm. I side with Peter Bradshaw ("a bold and heartfelt movie with a real Lean-ian sweep"), who doesn't even mention this sidelight. This movie has a lot to teach us.

Mr. Jones, 119 mins., in English, Russian, Ukrainian and Welsh, debuted at Berlin Feb. 10, 2019 at Berlin and showed in 2019 and 2020 at least 17 other festivals with numerous releases, including on demand in the US starting Jun. 19, 2020. Screened for this review as part of the seven-film virtual Brooklyn Academy of Music Apr. 30-May 6, 2021 Kino Polska series.

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