Review by Aaron Gorman
Films based on true events possess a hard-to-capture emotional resonance. When placed against a winter palette that suppresses any promise of colour, it’s easy to spot the ‘real’ people on screen starving during the Holodomor, Stalin’s genocidal famine of 1932-33. Polish director Agnieszka Holland would have no doubt felt a responsibility to set the stage and perform on it, given she fled martial law in Soviet Warsaw in 1981. Mr Gareth Jones (James Norton) our eponymous hero, echoes this rugged determinism. Mr. Jones follows the story of the Welsh journalist with a penance for poetry upon arriving in the Soviet Union. His purpose quickly becomes bringing the story of Stalin’s man-made famine into the western consciousness.
Many will be familiar with Stalin’s series of Five Year Plans: efforts to modernize and maximize the efficiency of farms and factories through collectivisation and urbanisation. This ambitiously rapid industrialization was a side step from rural peasant life. What occurred and is depicted instead is a morbid struggle between people and politics with industrial scale consequences.
Even when Jones was released from Moscow and told to rescind his words under threat of death of six captives, Orwell, a figure with whom retrospectively the literary and wider world held in such high esteem, asks that isn’t suffering worth the great experiment of socialism?
Subdued in colour, a misty Moscow is devoid of warmth. The Ukrainian countryside is tactile and suffering. From snow covered crops beside empty granaries, train loads of wheat are loaded by starving and collapsing farmers guarded by starch Soviet uniforms. The contrast is glaring. When we learn the grain is going to Moscow, a young George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) offers commentary: “All animals are made equal, but some are made more equal.” The short flashes that punctuate the dull landscape of the film are more shades of grey. Pulitzer prize winners grew blunt and fat under the attitudes of Stalin’s apologist media policy. Even when Jones was released from Moscow and told to rescind his words under threat of death of six captives, Orwell, a figure with whom retrospectively the literary and wider world held in such high esteem, asks that isn’t suffering worth the great experiment of socialism? These are dumbfounding words to Jones in his struggle against apathy and sympathy for the communist cause. Orwell didn’t write anti-Stalinist Animal Farm until 1945, and the Pulitzer prize winner in question, Walter Duranty, was only rebuffed in a 2003 article in the New York Times for whom he was correspondent. His accolade was never revoked.
When push came to shove and requisition came to confiscation, we follow Gareth Jones and his Welsh accent to the precipice of his exploits and back. Norton is impressive in making a thrilling experience out of a picture that is not inherently a thriller. His performance shows a delicacy and sensitivity to the horrors of the famine. There lies a punctuation to a delirious journey that is so poignant describing it here would be an inferior experience. It would numb the excitement of seeing it yourself.
Mr. Jones is now screening in select cinemas across Ireland.