Programme Notes: Mr Jones


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Spoiler warning: these notes are best read after watching the film. They contain detail of characters and plot.

The prolific Polish-born director Agnieszka Holland has created a striking film set in early 1933, when Stalin’s experiment in social engineering came off the rails and resulted in a terrible famine. Gaining full power in the late 1920s, the Soviet dictator embarked on a policy of rapid industrialisation which had enormous consequences for the peasants, who made up two-thirds of the population. They would have to hand over grain, described in the film as ‘Stalin’s gold’, that would feed the new industrial centres, and provide exports to pay for imported machinery. The untested system of collective farms (introduced in the winter of 1929-1930) and the high grain procurement targets placed unbearable demands on the countryside. Faced with growing evidence of food shortages in the winter of 1932-1933, Moscow imposed strict limits on movement, along with a ‘cloud of silence’ to maintain Stalin’s prestige, prevent disturbances from below, and avoid threats from abroad.

Meanwhile a small press corps of western journalists operated in Moscow, including some backers for the socialist ‘march toward modernity’ and others simply determined to maintain their careers in Russia. The best known was the British-born Walter Duranty, a sinister character played brilliantly here by Peter Sarsgaard. Duranty wrote for the New York Times and had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his reportage. All of the reporters were subject to tight censorship and not allowed to leave the capital. 

Into this situation comes the young Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton), who had served David Lloyd George as foreign affairs adviser. The liberal politician had won lasting global prestige as Prime Minister from 1916 to 1922. Among other things, he had arranged de facto British recognition of Soviet Russia with the 1921 Trade Agreement. Although Jones is formally dispensed with as foreign adviser – at which point he tells Lloyd George: ‘It is me you need, sir. I’m the only one that tells you the truth’ – he is granted a visa to visit Moscow on the strength of his former connection. Almost immediately on arrival Jones is confronted by the untruths of the Soviet regime. Truth becomes his agenda, but whose truth, asks Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), another of the press corps with experience of the Nazi regime’s activities in Germany.

Gareth Jones had visited the Soviet Union previously, in 1931, including Ukraine. He kept a diary, in which he refers to ‘starving’ peasants, resulting from the agricultural collectivisation policy instituted by Stalin. As stated in the film, Jones visited Germany in February 1933, observing the growing power of Hitler and the Nazi regime, an experience that gave added impetus to his visit to the Soviet Union in March 1933. 

In Moscow, Jones realised that massive food shortages are the hidden ‘story’, and he arranged a visit to Eastern Ukraine. Again, he kept a diary of his journey and the people he met and talked to, and in which he described the horrific, desolate scenes he observed. This diary formed the basis of his articles published in major newspapers after his return to Britain and was the evidence presented in his pursuit of the truth. He even congratulates the Soviet Foreign Office on its skill in concealing the truth. However, Jones is called a liar in the press by Duranty and others. He is effectively disowned by Lloyd George.

Jones’s family have accused the film makers of fictionalising/sensationalising certain aspects of his Ukrainian journey, and audiences may want to make their own pursuit of the truth by reading his published articles. [1] Particularly hauntingly presented in the film is Jones’s encounter with young children in a starving Ukrainian village who sing of Stalin ‘sitting on his throne, playing his violin, looking down with a frown on our bread-giving country… hunger and cold are in our house, nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep, and our neighbour has lost his mind… and eaten his children…’. The children’s voices are heard again as a soundscape to Jones’s onward journey while still in Ukraine and also when he has returned to Wales, trying to adapt to an environment that is an acute contrast to what he has experienced in Stalin’s land of untruths.

The Soviet famine of 1932-33 is much debated; some describe it as a genocide. Ukrainians know it as the Holodmor (‘Death by Hunger’), but it also caused many deaths in other parts of the USSR. Unlike the Holocaust, it was probably not intended to kill huge numbers of people; rather it was an event brought about by a criminally mismanaged government policy. Nevertheless, the famine was among the very worst of the 20th century.

The observations of George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) provide a thread that runs throughout the film, although not in chronological order, ranging from early meetings with Jones, when Orwell defends Soviet policies, to the bitter satire of Animal Farm, published in 1945 (in which the farmer is ‘Mr Jones’). The screenwriter, the Ukrainian-American Andrea Chalupa, has already written a short book on Orwell.

Any contemporary assessment of Jones’s legacy to present-day journalists, especially those reporting from regimes of untruths, must surely include acknowledgement of his personal commitment to pursuit of the hidden story.  

Marion Cobban, freelance editor and Russian linguist
Evan Mawdsley, author of The Stalin Years: The Soviet Union, 1929-1953

[1] https://www.garethjones.org/soviet_articles/soviet_articles.htm


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