Film: Mr. Jones

Knowledge of history can sometimes mitigate the eye-opening sense of discovery a good historical film can provide. I had no such issues with Agnieszka Holland’s Mr. Jones (2019), which ventures into unfamiliar (to me) territory, a new and harrowing corner of the past. The film also presents outwardly as something of a pre-World War II thriller, when in fact it’s something even grittier and more unexpected. These factors combined to make watching it a refreshing, illuminating experience.

The subject is Gareth Jones (James Norton), a dedicated young idealist in the mid-1930s. Jones works as a foreign advisor to former Prime Minister David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), but when budget cuts eliminate his position, he leverages his connections (and commits some light forgery) to become a journalist. His interview of Adolf Hitler, which Lloyd George helped arrange, has convinced him of the imminence of war and the urgency of forging an alliance with Russia. To that end, he journeys to Moscow in an attempt to arrange a similar interview with Stalin. This lands him in a state-controlled bubble, led by complicit Pulitzer-winning journalist Walter Duranty (Peter Saarsgaard), and unable to get any traction in his search. But when a friend dies under mysterious circumstances, he undertakes—with the conflicted aide of Duranty’s assistant Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby)—to uncover a new story that will expose the truth about Stalin’s Russia.

Mr. Jones is a a gorgeously shot film with an earnest, relevant—indeed, I wish it weren’t—contemporary message about the roll of media in conveying the truth. Norton is great casting as the courageous, naive whistleblower who ambitiously pushes himself out of his comfort zone to uncover shocking, tragic secrets about the brutality of mid-twentieth century Russian communism. Those expecting a conventional tale of international intrigue will likely be surprised by the late turns of the story. It does feel a little like an Alan Furst spy novel, with its intrepid hero surviving an ordeal and coming out the other side vastly changed, but it’s much more a tale of the pursuit of truth, the responsibilities of that pursuit, and the toll it can take. An effective, focused film that executes its message with a sure hand.

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