Juxtaposed with passages from George Orwell’s 1945 allegorical novella Animal Farm, “Mr. Jones” tells the story of the real-life Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist who uncovered the horror of the Holodomor, Ukraine’s great famine of 1932-1933. If we are to believe that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” it makes sense that Jones would have been hunted down in Ukraine and discredited in the West. To this day, Gareth Jones remains an obscure figure.
Director Agnieszka Holland brings him back to life in this powerful film. Played by James Norton, Jones is presented as the quintessential naïve young man ready to change the world with his enthusiasm and curiosity. Not surprisingly, he is not taken seriously by the intelligentsia, who prefer reading the lies and misrepresentations written by veteran journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard). What gets Duranty published in the New York Times is not necessarily talent, but social status.
Jones leaves London for Moscow, where he finds out his friend was killed by the secret police while he was working on a story about Ukraine. By overhyping his credentials, Jones manages to get on a train with an apparatchik of the Communist Party to see the “breadbasket of Europe” for himself. He then jumps out of his luxury train and gets onto an adjacent carriage for ordinary Ukrainians. They are all staving, and throw themselves all over the rind of the orange he is eating casually.
Once out of the train, Jones tries to blend in by heaving bags of wheat on their way to Moscow like the famished peasants around him. He starts taking pictures and asking them questions, but he is soon exposed as an outsider and a threat. “I think this foreigner is a spy,” says one docile peasant. The safe course of action would have been to remain confined in Moscow and repackage state-sanctioned propaganda.
Jones runs away and here we see the sublime of the Ukrainian landscape in all its glory. Lost in the white nothingness of the cold and snowy winter, Jones meets ghost-like figures of peasants who are dying one after another, taken away in carts, some going so far as to eat their own relatives to survive. The ordinary Ukrainian has been dehumanized by the state, and forgotten by the rest of civilization.
Jones manages to survive unscathed and returns to London, but his articles are dismissed and buried under the weight of disinformation from Duranty and others in the mainstream media. Back in his native Wales, he becomes a cultural reporter, and he is later killed by the secret police on another trip to Mongolia. If the film is a critique of social status both in the West and the East, it is also a wake-up call about the manufactured consent of elite journalism.