“Mr. Jones” – film review

Mr. Jones is a film created by Agnieszka Holland, a Polish director who has been nominated for the Oscar three times.

It tells the true story of Gareth Jones, an aspiring British journalist (formerly foreign advisor to the British Prime Minister), who tried to investigate the apparent economic prosperity of the USSR in the 1930s. His investigations slowly but inevitably lead him to discover Stalin’s secret – the man-made famine in the Ukraine in which millions of people died.

The film starts as a thriller depicting espionage and murder on the streets of Moscow. As the story moves into a snow-filled Ukraine, it turns into a vivid white nightmare. Dark figures of corpses and wraithlike children are scattered throughout the deserted landscape. The eerie song of the starving children is likely to stay with you long after the film is over.

But much as this film is dedicated to raising awareness of the events of the Holodomor (The Great Famine), it is also devoted to the pursuit of truth in journalism. In the end, Gareth Jones’s battle is not just with the USSR, but also with the American and British journalists who had determined that it is more convenient to conceal Stalin’s crimes than to acknowledge them.

The film uses George Orwell’s Animal Farm as a frame. The opening shot gives us pigs gathering at the trough- a nod at the Napoleon and Snowball. We have interspersed quotes from Animal Farm throughout, and in the last third of the film, George Orwell makes an appearance.

This technique aims to center the films’ events in a context that the Anglophone world is more likely to understand. Not many people have heard of the Holodomor, but most have heard of Animal Farm.

The use of Animal Farm allows us to see the mass starvation of the Ukrainians from Orwell’s perspective of disillusionment,  At first, he was an idealist who would like to allow some sacrifices “for the greater good”. Then he realizes that “the greater good” is killing millions mercilessly. And he is human enough not to accept this.

At one point, Orwell turns to Jones and asks “And so there is no hope?”

But for Jones, it is not so much “hope” that matters. It is the pursuit of truth- and some vague sort of justice- no matter what the personal cost to himself might be.

Regardless of whether “the truth will make you free” (to quote St. John the Evangelist) or “the truth will make you fret” ( to quote Terry Pratchett’s William de Worde) – we need more journalists like Gareth Jones. Those for whom getting to the truth is the most vital part of their job. They are a rare breed.

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