Review: Despite a Sense of Urgency Mr. Jones is a Bleak Look Back at History

Based on real events, Mr. Jones is a pre-World War II drama that centers on some of the events that led (or perhaps misled) to paving the way for Hitler to come to power in the 1930s. Using a unique framing structure to tell the story, legendary Polish-born director Agnieszka Holland focuses on the exploits of young British investigative journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton) who speaks fluent Russian and takes a secret trip to Moscow, into the heart of Stalin’s supposed utopian Soviet Union. Jones pretends to be representing a British secretary (Kenneth Cranham) who is interested in knowing whether Russia can defend itself on the Eastern Front if Hitler decides to invade, but he’s really there to peek behind the propaganda machine that is feeding the Western world stories of wild spending in Russia while the rest of the world is in economic decline.

The other narrative device Holland uses in Mr. Jones is George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which we hear excerpts from read by Orwell (or more specifically Joseph Mawle, who plays Orwell here), and whom Jones crosses paths with on his return from Ukraine in the Soviet Union, where he reveals his finding of starving citizens and millions dead, all in the name of keeping Stalin’s myth alive. Orwell took great inspiration from these findings when writing his seminal novel. Along his journey, Jones uncovers the sinister way in which other foreign journalists working in the Soviet Union, including Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), were paid and otherwise manipulated by the Stalin regime to write false stories in Western papers about the strength and happiness of the Soviet people during this time. These writers also rallied to discredit Jones’s stories of poverty and death, and even threatened the lives of so-called Western spies in captivity if he didn’t retract his statements.

Vanessa Kirby (Mission: Impossible—Fallout) plays Ada Brooks, who works closely with Duranty but is also sickened by the wealth of lies that are coming out of Stalin’s propaganda. She acts as something of an informer to Jones, at great risk to her life. Mr. Jones is appropriately bleak, especially in the sequences set in freezing-cold areas of Ukraine where Jones sees unspeakable horrors, including cannibalism, that people resort to in order to stay alive. During these portions of the film, I was convinced that director Holland had switched from color to black-and-white film to make the setting all the more stark and washed out, but she simply picked a location and costumes where color has no place. The result is staggering and captivating, while also being about as grim as anything you’ll see this year.

Apparently shortened by about 20 minutes from its running time when it premiered at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, Mr. Jones feels urgent at times, especially in the moments inside the Soviet Union, and languid when the action returns to the UK, even as Jones is seemingly screaming into the void with warnings to those who either don’t believe him or don’t want his truth to get out into the world. This is a film about how the preferred truth often rules the day, and it’s ultimately a heartbreaking tale in that respect. There is some hope in the final moments that the truth will be set free, but of course, we all know how this story really ends, for the British, the Soviets, and everyone else.

Mr. Jones is available through the Gene Siskel Film Center’s “Film Center from Your Sofa” program.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.