LIKE her mentor, Krzyśztof Kieslowski (Dekalog, Three Colours trilogy), Agnieszka Holland, director of Mr Jones (Cert. 15), frequently considers how beliefs inform our political arrangements. Output has included various tales of the Holocaust (Europa Europa, In Darkness), but also individual sacrifice in the face of adverse conditions. The Burning Bush television series, for example, chronicled the Czech student Jan Palach’s self-immolation in protest again Soviet invasion. Her latest film penetratingly speaks truth to power and the great personal cost that it can involve.
Communism’s belief system as practised under Joseph Stalin is scrutinised. It is 1933. As a foreign-affairs adviser to Lloyd George, Gareth Jones (James Norton) forewarns a sceptical Cabinet of the danger that Nazism poses to peace. Cutbacks lead to the Welshman’s redundancy, whereupon the young man, already famous for interviewing Hitler, seeks contact with Stalin.
Jones is puzzled how during the Great Depression the USSR’s industrial modernisation is being afforded. In Moscow, he meets Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), a British journalist ambivalent about Soviet economic achievements. She tells him about rumours of state-induced famine in Ukraine. Dodging his secret-police minder, Jones sees for himself what he describes as man-made starvation: the Holodomor. Millions die of hunger as their grain is exported to earn revenue. There is something messianic about the Revolution. Stalin, a former seminarian, exchanges God for the Five-Year Plan. A woman tells Jones: “Men came and thought they could replace the natural laws.”
Later dubbed the Man Who Knew Too Much, Jones, after arrest, is deported home. His dilemma is that six British workers are held hostage and risk execution if he spills the beans and tells the truth. But what is truth? Brooks suggests that Jones’s version is subjective, whereas for him it is absolute. Moscow-based Western journalists appear to have no awareness of the atrocities, not least because they are barred from travelling and learning the truth. The New York Times’s esteemed Moscow correspondent, Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard, disturbingly sinister), is clearly complicit with Soviet authorities. He justifies the starvation with a line straight out of a Jeeves novel. “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs,” he says.
The film is interspersed with shots of someone who, we realise, is George Orwell. “The world is being invaded by monsters,” he says. By telling the truth through talking beasts, maybe he can make people listen and understand. He is speaking of his allegory Animal Farm, not published until 1945, in which the owner is called Mr Jones. Previously, as we see in the film, Orwell was reluctant to abandon his belief in Soviet fake news.
Franz Kafka, no stranger to bureaucratic dissembling, likened speaking truth to living on a tightrope. It doesn’t have to be far off the ground to trip us up. Jones, on the other hand, was definitely a high-wire act. There are others in the film who still manage, in less spectacular ways, to be what Kafka described as acrobats of the soul. Mr Jones is a dark film, matched by the cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk’s near-monochrome palette. Thankfully, Holland throws some light on those brave enough to speak the truth that sets us free.