Starring: James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Running Time: 141 mins
Mr. Jones is a Polish film about a British journalist who travels to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and despite the country’s reputation as a socialist haven, discovers widespread abuses and famine when he ventures out of the capital of Moscow.
This is a fascinating true story, set at one of the most enthralling junctures in 20th century history. So, it’s amazing just how boring a film Mr. Jones is. Despite a strong start that promises to fill its story with uneasy tension and staggering, emotionally devastating revelations, I felt almost nothing watching Mr. Jones, a historical drama that drags on and on and on, without ever hitting home in the way it really should.
The film focuses not only on the way the Soviet Union concealed atrocities in the pre-war period from its Western allies, but the horrifying and still often under-reported truth of the Holodomor, a devastating famine that ravaged Ukraine as a result of the policies introduced by Stalin’s government. Coupled with the personal story of Gareth Jones, the journalist who uncovers these atrocities, there’s more than enough material for this film to turn into an enthralling story.
However, in its attempts to capture Cold War tension before the age of spies and East-West frostiness had even broken out, and in an effort to give Mr. Jones a moment in the spotlight alongside highlighting devastating historical truths, this film never really knows what it wants to do.
The message about the USSR’s method of cover-ups to present itself as a socialist paradise is well-established early on, and leads into the shocking revelations of the Holodomor. As we see Mr. Jones escape the effective show capital of Moscow into the Ukrainian countryside, the film takes a decidedly gritty turn, but it doesn’t manage to keep that up all the way through.
The film portrays the horrors of the Holodomor in shocking and graphic detail, but as it then comes around to focusing on Mr. Jones’ own journey, it really loses a lot of that intensity. Perhaps because, as harsh and brutal as Jones’ unfair fall from grace is, it doesn’t compare to the darkest moments of the film’s middle act, and there’s almost nowhere else for this movie to go over the course of its final hour and a half.
Apart from the fact that its 141-minute runtime seems to drag on for an age in the final act, it’s such a shame that Mr. Jones takes a range of captivating and historically significant themes and stories and makes them so boring and underwhelming on film. It’s not a symptom of dry, objective storytelling for the sake of historical accuracy, but rather narrative choices that undermine the power of its central messages, and ultimately serve to turn the film into a real chore of a watch. So, that’s why I’m giving Mr. Jones a 6.5 overall.