(director: Agnieszka Holland; screenwriter: Andrea Chalupa; cinematographer: Tomasz Naumiuk; editor: Michal Czarnecki; music: Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz; cast: James Norton (Gareth Jones), Vanessa Kirby (Ada Brooks), Peter Sarsgaard (Walter Duranty), Joseph Mawle (George Orwell), Kenneth Cranham (Lloyd George), Julian Lewis Jones (Major Jones); Runtime: 141; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Klaudia Smieja-Rostworowska, Stanislaw Dziedzic, Andrea Chalupa; Samuel Goldwyn Films; 2019-Poland/UK/Ukraine-in English, Ukrainian, Russian & Welsh, with English subtitles if necessary)
“A bleak but true-life informative historical drama from the renown female Polish director Agnieszka Holland.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A bleak but true-life informative historical drama from the renown female Polish director Agnieszka Holland (“Spoor”/”In Darkness”). It tells of an idealistic Welsh journalist, the unassuming Gareth Jones (James Norton), long overlooked by history, who travels to the Ukraine in 1933, which was facing a severe famine that the world was unaware of and he tells its story to the world even if it’s to no avail. The fine political script is by Andrea Chalupa. It is also important to note that Ms. Holland was arrested by the Soviet-backed government in Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring and was forced to leave Poland by its communist regime.
The film begins in the early 1930s with Jones reporting on his recent trip to Germany. The journalist, after interviewing Hitler, opines his concerns about the Hitler and Goebbels power grab to a gathering of Brit diplomats and newsmen and, to his boss, David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), the former English prime minister. But no one is interested in what he has to say. In the next scene, after losing his job over his politics, Jones gets a job to interview Stalin and he’s en route by plane to Moscow.
Things get a bit interesting in Moscow, where the Russian authorities have confined the foreigners to the city, and the journalist finds it’s not possible to interview Stalin who is closely watched and kept from the people. As the Russian-speaking Jones gets his bearings in this strange foreign country, he encounters foreign journalists at various gatherings. One of the most important journalists present at those gatherings is the hedonistic, menacing NY Times Moscow bureau chief, Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), known as a Stalin apologist. He blindly accepts the despot’s lies, has achieved fame by coining the term Stalinism and is known for throwing wild drug and sex parties. He also befriended the English black arts occultist Aleister Crowley.
There’s a tense scene on the train to the Ukraine, the best scene in the film, shot without much dialogue, after Jones receives a tip that it’s essential for him to visit there. While on the train with his Soviet handler, the other passengers intently stare at him while he’s eating. When he leaves a scrap of food on his plate, it’s eerie watching several Ukrainian passengers pounce on it.
Jones loses his Soviet spy and walks on foot across the depopulated depressing snowy country fields, reaching a small town where he observes the peasants, forced laborers, loading wheat on trucks to be sold overseas while those in the Ukraine starve. The journalist has uncovered Stalin’s secret policy which killed by starvation a million Ukrainians. The genocidal famine of 1932-33 became known as the Holodomor.
There’s a good story here on the journalist’s Ukraine escapade, but Holland unwisely cuts away from it repeatedly to show us an untidy George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) typing his Animal Farm book in his English house, a novel that used real historical events to infuse them into allegory. The mood of these scenes was so different, that the film seemed in a jarring way to lose its focus from the exciting Ukraine scenes. The film never seemed to recover its former rhythm with all the cutaways. I believe the story about the Orwell and Jones connection could have been done without sacrificing the main Ukraine story.
But the focus of the movie is on the money. It refuses to get into Jones’s motives for doing what he did or in psychoanalyzing him. It just covers what he bravely did as a witness to such an immense tragedy in history and got the story out so the world knew about it. This in itself is great stuff, and makes for a film I immensely appreciated for telling me a story about an heroic figure who exposed a tragedy that the world didn’t listen to. His story was not well known, but I feel better that I now know it and also learned that his story inspired George Orwell’s seminal book Animal Farm that was written in the mid-1940s and was critical of Stalin’s communist regime largely because of the Jones factor.
Holland proves to be a powerful filmmaker, whose Ukraine footage fully captures the human suffering of the Ukrainian people caused by a monstrous Stalin. Also, it’s worth noting that the no-nonsense performance by James Norton was first-rate.
REVIEWED ON 6/24/2020 GRADE: B+