Producers: Klaudia Smieja-Rostworowska, Stanislaw Dziedzic and Andrea Chalupa   Director: Agnieszka Holland   Screenplay: Andrea Chalupa   Cast: James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard, Joseph Mawle, Kenneth Cranham, Krzysztof Pieczynski, Celyn Jones, Patricia Volny, Beata Poźniak and Julian Lewis Jones   Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Grade: B-

It’s not a great film by any means, but if you’re at all fascinated by the history of the USSR, “Mr. Jones”—handsomely mounted and directed with understated tension by Agnieszka Holland—will be of considerable interest, not least as a useful counterpoint to Warren Beatty’s “Reds” (1981).  It can also serve, in tandem with the recent “The Road to Mother,” as a window to the cruelties of the Stalin regime, in that case in Kazakhstan; here the basic subject is the Holodomor, the policy of man-made famine in Ukraine that was brought to the attention of westerners by the titular character (and, it should be noted, by Malcolm Muggeridge in the leftist Manchester Guardian, which earned him scorn from those who’d been his friends).  

The western observer in this case, Gareth Jones (James Norton), is a young Welshman serving in the office of British statesman David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham) in 1933.  His colleagues ridicule his insistence that war is coming—a belief fortified by an interview he’d wrangled with Hitler and Goebbels—but after his job is eliminated for budgetary reasons, he decides to go ahead with a planned visit to Moscow, where he hopes to land a similar interview with Stalin, by rewriting the letter of recommendation Lloyd George has volunteered on his behalf.

Once installed at the plush Hotel Metropole in the Soviet capital, he finds that his stay has been reduced from a week to a mere two days and that access to anywhere in the country save the capital is forbidden.  He also realizes that the western press corps is blissfully unconcerned about persistent rumors of famine in Ukraine; a friend of his who’d insisted on looking into those reports, in fact, has just been murdered outside the hotel, and his killing is conveniently unsolved. 

The general attitude is encapsulated in the dispatches of Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), the dean of the westerner journalists in the Soviet Union.  As the Moscow correspondent of the New York Times since 1922, he produces reports painting Stalin’s rule in the most favorable terms and dismisses all rumors to the contrary as, to use a more modern term, fake news.  He also squelches any attempts by other reporters, like Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), to ferret out the truth. 

Jones cleverly manipulates Soviet propagandist Maxim Litvinov (Krzysztof Pieczynski) into proving his encomia to the brilliance of the Stalinist system by taking him on a trip to Ukraine to see for himself the successes the regime is having throughout the country.  Once there, however, he escapes his handlers and bounds onto a train housing starving workers and their families.  Sneaking off the train, he travels through the snow-covered landscape, watching men with carts picking up corpses (and even sometimes the bawling infants beside them) and visiting the shacks of peasant families with little in their larder.

Eventually he is captured and returned to Moscow for expulsion from the country.  But the regime also takes six British engineers prisoner and charges them with espionage.  Jones is returned to England with the knowledge that if he reveals what he’s seen, they will be executed, and is reduced to journalistic obscurity—until, of course, his conscience won’t allow him to keep silent.  The upshot is that his revelations of man-made famine inspire George Orwell (Joseph Mawle), an erstwhile believer, to write his stinging beast fable of Stalin’s totalitarian regime, “Animal Farm.”  (A closing caption informs us that Jones died in 1935 after being kidnapped while investigating the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Many suspect that he was murdered by Soviet agents.)

“Mr. Jones” is an elegantly mounted tribute to a crusading journalist, and Norton plays him with an appropriate degree of boyish intensity and earnest bravado.  In many respects, however, the more intriguing character is Duranty, who seems to have been moved not by ideology but careerism and a love of celebrity, compounded by the hedonistic lifestyle Stalin showered on his favorites, both in and outside the party.  (His highly biased work for the Times, discussed in S.J. Taylor’s 1990 biography “Stalin’s Apologist,” prompted the paper’s editorial staff to acknowledge that his reporting was among the worst ever to appear in the paper.)  Sarsgaard portrays him as a preening, cultivated sleaze, sardonically dismissive of the incorruptible Jones, and even gets Duranty’s limp—the result of a prosthesis he wore after losing half a leg some years earlier—right.

The remainder of the cast does what’s required of them without being especially remarkable, with Kirby particularly underused as the dour Brooks; Mawle makes a rather rodent-like Orwell.  But the visual side of the film is impressive, with a production design by Grzegorz Piatkowski  and costumes by Aleksandra Staszko that are models of period precision. Tomasz Naumiuk’s cinematography is lush (though arguably too glossy in the sequences in Ukraine, though he reverts to black-and-white in them), while Michal Czarnecki’s editing occasionally goes a bit slack.  Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz’s score is suitably serious.

With “Mr. Jones” Holland, an able craftsman with an uneven output, has fashioned an interesting complement to her 2012 condemnation of another twentieth-century tyranny, “In Darkness,” about Nazi anti-Jewish brutality in Poland.  Both are solid, committed pieces of work deserving of viewing not just for their themes but her realization of them.