Agnieszka Holland’s account of the man who exposed Stalin’s Ukrainian famine is a straightforward account whose tone occasionally jars with genre touches – these dynamic choices would work better if committed to throughout the film. While dealing with timely issues, Mr Jones does not drive home connections between Soviet Russia and human rights and press freedom issues today – some statements about Hitler and Stalin echo quotes from the current US president but these points are not belaboured to the film’s strength. It turns heavy-handed in its framing device: George Orwell writing Animal Farm. This makes sense since Orwell was reportedly inspired by Jones’ reporting, but as this connection is never explored in the film it feels on-the-nose.
James Norton is an infinitely watchable leading man whose nuanced, emotionally-charged performance conveys the titular journalist’s doggedness and heart and contributes largely to the film’s impact. He believably captures both Jones’ clear-eyed optimism and his stubbornness, idealism changing to fury and helplessness as he experiences the famine’s reality and fraud and exploitation destroying Soviet workers and the European press. Vanessa Kirby is dragged down by playing the obvious token woman; she seemed to be added merely as a female character with no motivation outside Jones’ own, which distracts.
Andrea Chalupa’s script neatly sidesteps the biopic tendency to neaten and overplay the significance of the film’s climactic events. It means the conclusion arrives rather abruptly after a well-paced two and a half hours, but after Jones’ exhausting fight a more cinematic ending would feel tacky.
Mr Jones does not deliver something radically unexpected – it is a fairly conventional biopic, albeit one with strong pacing and odd tonal choices. However, the humanity of its central performance and unsparing, unmelodramatic examination of corruption and a long, lonely fight to expose it anchors a compelling narrative.
CAST: James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard, Joseph Mawle, Fenella Woolgar
DIRECTOR: Agnieszka Holland
WRITER: Andrea Chalupa
SYNOPSIS: This biopic of journalist Gareth Jones