Leaving out the politics?
The new Agnieszka Holland film Mr Jones is oddly dissatisfying. On the face of it this story of a brave spad exposing the Holodomor (the appalling 1930s famine in the Ukraine, then part of the USSR) ought to have instant grip. The acting cannot be faulted. James Norton makes a credibly naive Jones, blundering impulsively and insensitively through Stalin’s USSR. In Moscow and in the Ukraine he disregards his own life and the risk he poses to the lives of others. From Peter Sarsgaard comes a devastating portrait of the odious Walter Duranty, New York Times reporter who suppressed the truth about the famine and (later) the Moscow Trials. Jones crashes into 1930s Moscow, giving the impression he is making enquiries for former boss David Lloyd George, a fish Stalin’s admirers would certainly love to have netted. (The ever-reliable Kenneth Cranham convinces entirely as the Welsh Wizard.) Jones follows the path of a friend murdered by one of Stalin’s thugs to reach the Ukraine and there observes the famine, fortunately escaping to report the truth via the violently anti-communist Hearst Press. Joseph Mawle is persuasive, if minimal, as a pre-war George Orwell, feeling his political way through the snake-pit of the 1930s. The film suggests Jones’s experiences inspired Animal Farm. It may be so.
The chronology stumbles. Lloyd George certainly remained a potent force in British politics through the 1930s. He was gulled by Hitler and might easily have been by Stalin. But neither his international prestige (‘the man who won the war’) nor the fear he inspired among Conservative politicians is explained in the film. No dates are offered until the postscript. The drama is concentrated on the life (and early death, surely on Stalin’s orders) of Jones.
We also yearn for more about Soviet politics and the global context. Why did the vile Duranty matter? Why did Lloyd George’s name unlock doors? What was happening in Moscow on the eve of the Kirov assassination? The famine is persuasively – horribly – presented but as a personal odyssey.