Mr. Jones Review
If you were to believe the movies, journalism is one of the most exciting, dangerous professions you can possibly have. Meeting sources at midnight in underground car parks, fighting off death threats from governments in order to get the truth out there - when in reality, most journalism jobs now revolve around sifting through press releases from the local council. If for no other reason, Agnieszka Holland’s new drama Mr. Jones deserves plaudits for taking a true story about a journalist caught in one of the most hostile environments on earth, without falling victim to the many clichés of depicting the behind the scenes lives of journalists onscreen.
Gareth Jones (James Norton) has all the connections a journalist could dream of; ties to the British Government, that helped him get access to interview foreign leaders like a then-ascendent Adolf Hitler. But through the way he’s characterised, as a person so driven to get a good story he ignores anything that could bring excitement to his life, the film feels grounded in the realities of the profession despite the escalating hell-scape he finds himself in. Imagine Jake Gyllenhaal’s obsessive newspaper cartoonist in Zodiac transported to the Soviet Union, and you’re halfway towards imagining the perfectly calibrated awkwardness Norton brings to the role.
The year is 1933, and we’re introduced to Jones telling bemused members of the British Government about Hitler’s plans for Germany, which are laughed off as unrealistic. But this interview has gained him some notoriety, and his next plan is to arrange an interview with Stalin - but upon arrival in Moscow, this appears to be easier said than done. Journalists are forbidden from leaving the capital, but Gareth manages to sneak out, and discovers that the ruling communist party are hiding mass poverty elsewhere in the country. Worse still, he’s stranded, and needs to find a way to get back to civilisation, and then out of Russia, which will require government co-operation.
It isn’t until the hour mark that Gareth comes closer to getting the scoop he’s ventured to Russia to find, and it’s these moments where the film is at its strongest. After establishing a very conventional character piece for the first hour, Jones’ innate awkwardness being accentuated at every turn, he’s sent away from civilisation and the film transforms into a survival thriller - closer in spirit to The Revenant than a journalism thriller in the All the President’s Men mould. These moments see Holland briefly shy away from the conventions of staging a period drama by utilising shaky handheld cinematography, pairing this with long takes so as to not invite any comparisons to Paul Greengrass. In this mostly dialogue free stretch, Norton’s performance becomes all the more impressive, the camera lingering on his face as he becomes increasingly broken down by the unwelcoming environment he’s found himself in.
Which makes the third act all the more of a comedown. When reviewing biopics, Mark Kermode often uses the phrase “chubby, hmm” to refer to a clumsily staged way of depicting a well known moment in a public figure’s life - the phrase being named after a scene in a straight to TV Karen Carpenter biopic when the subject of her bulimia was brought up. And Mr. Jones has the chubbiest of any recent chubby, hmm moments when a writer by the name of George Orwell appears, and is so dismayed by what he hears about the failure of communism in Russia, he gets the inspiration to write Animal Farm in response. As we see a continued state cover up happening behind the iron curtain, we hear the most famous excerpts from the novel to hammer the point home further - Holland seemingly unaware that Orwell didn’t actually start writing Animal Farm until a decade after the events seen onscreen.
It’s a shame that the film has to lapse into one of those aforementioned 'biopic clichés' in its final stretch, and not just because they put renewed focus on a figure who has been absent for the entirety of the drama. It lessens the overall impact of one of the better recent movies about journalism, turning it into the middlebrow prestige movie it resists becoming for the majority of its running time. Few films manage to stay grounded in the reality of the job when depicting journalists on a seemingly life or death assignment - which is why it’s such a shame that the dramatic flourishes eventually rear their head, after the reporting has been completed.
Mr. Jones is in UK and Irish cinemas on February 7th