A good idea for a biopic doesn’t always find its ideal reflection on screen. Look what happened to Leonardo DiCaprio’s J. Edgar (as in Hoover), Hilary Swank’s Amelia (as in Earhart) and Colin Farrell’s Alexander (as in the Great). To that list of stymied ambition, add Mr. Jones, as in Gareth Jones (James Norton), the Welsh journalist whose exposé of Soviet atrocities leading up to World War II pissed off so many higher-ups that he never lived to see the age of 30.
On the surface, director and screenwriter Agnieszka Holland seemed a wise choice to helm Mr. Jones, given her superb handling of such Oscar-nominated wartime dramas as Europa, Europa and In Darkness. This time, however, the Polish filmmaker — herself driven out of Poland by the communists — is saddled with a rookie script by Andrea Chalupa that can’t make up its mind about what story it wants to tell. Is it Jones grappling with the ascendency of Adolph Hitler in 1933 while his colleagues turned a deaf ear? Is it Jones traveling to the Soviet Union in that same year to blow the whistle on the Holodomor — the famine engineered by Joseph Stalin that starved millions in the Ukraine while grain was sold abroad to stuff Soviet coffers? Or is it how these events inspired George Orwell to write 1945’s Animal Farm, an allegorical fable aimed at the toxic core of Stalinist totalitarianism?
It’s all three, actually, adding up to a garbled, fragmented muddle when clarity should have been of the essence. This being Holland, Mr. Jones is not without spurts of epic filmmaking, notably in the stark portrayal of human misery in the Ukraine scenes. There is also no doubting the contemporary relevance in this largely untold story of a journalist who exposed those governments and individuals who turned a willing blind eye as they hurtled toward another world war. Jones, who was widely discredited for disseminating the 1930s equivalent of fake news, deserved a fuller screen treatment than he’s afforded in this two-hour film, that lost 20 minutes since its debut at the Berlin Film Festival last year. No knock on Norton — the hot vicar on Grantchester and the hot professor in Little Women — who plays Jones with the passionate commitment the role demands. It’s in following Jones’ serpentine journey through the corridors of power that the film loses its way.
You can feel Holland’s rage at the bureaucratic walls erected to block this courageous reporter. Prime Minister Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), a fellow Welshman, dismisses Jones as a foreign advisor when his views prove detrimental to Britain’s financial interests. It’s as a journalist that Jones finds himself in Moscow, spied on Big Brother and getting sidetracked by New York Times reporter Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), who is less interested in helping Jones than in towing the party line about Stalin’s bogus utopia and throwing sex-and-drug parties for assembled journalists. Jones expresses shock at “standing beside a completely naked Pulitzer Prize-winner.” But the line reads cheap in the light of the circumstances. Holland waits for the end credits to note with shock that Duranty’s Pulitzer has never been revoked.
More distractions come in Jones’ relationship with Ada Brooks (a wasted Vanessa Kirby), a writer who knows Jones is telling the truth but lies to keep her job in the so-called free press.
Orwell also returns in the person of Joseph Mawie to remind us that “the world is being invaded by monsters” and that he wrote Animal Farm because he thought readers would find the truth easier to take if spoken by farm animals.
All well and good. But these diversions are no substitute for building Jones into a character we can understand from the inside, flaws and all. And what happened to the cinema rule that show is always better than tell? Instead of telling us about it, why not let us experience Jones’ interview with Hitler on the Fuhrer’s private plane and feel his horror at the theories expressed about a master race and world domination? Holland regains her footing by lavishing forensic detail on how Jones talked himself into Moscow as a press stringer and then pushed into the Ukraine at terrible risk and persuaded William Randolph Hearst (Matthew Marsh) to publish his findings. These scenes, masterfully shot by Tomasz Naumiuk, burn into the memory like Holland’s best films. Mr. Jones, available on digital on June 19th, is only partly successful at being the stirring indictment that Holland intended to carve out of Chalupa’s disordered script. The great movie that might have been remains frustratingly out of reach.