Somewhere around the 50 minute mark, MR JONES (2020) becomes one of the most thrilling movies I’ve seen for some time. In 1930’s Soviet Russia, Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton) evades his escort and drops into the hidden Ukrainian wasteland of starving farmers.


Jones has come to Russia to answer a question: “There’s a Global Economic Collapse. Meanwhile the Soviets are having a spending spree. How? The numbers don’t add up. The Kremlin’s broke.” Within minutes he finds the answer as he’s forced by armed guards to help load grain onto trains. Stalin’s government is selling the grain to pay for the construction of new factories and power plants while in the countryside millions die of starvation. Having got himself so deep, so soon, the viewer asks how is he going to get out of this? And inevitably, the viewer asks did it really happen like this?

The answer seems to be – no, not quite. Begging the question, how many lies can you tell in a film about the truth?

This is not to deny that countless innocent people died for an ideology. Or to deny that the victims of mismanagement were scapegoated as “wreckers” because that ideology could not be seen to fail. Just to ask – when the facts are fascinating – why film-makers inevitably rearrange those facts.

Early in the film, Gareth Jones is invited to a party at the Moscow home of New York Times journalist Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard). It’s the inevitable have-your-cake-and-eat-it soft focus orgy that we are invited to enjoy and abhor (cf SCANDAL). Jones – non-smoking, non-drinking, non-fornicating – stays aloof from it all . A member of the Moscow Press Corps, explaining that reporters are forbidden from travelling outside Moscow, advises Jones he’ll understand the situation better if he reads Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. Jones prefers to quote the Welsh poem ‘The Battle of the Trees.’ And that’s the best way to view this film – based on the truth, but halfway between a gothic horror and a misty Welsh quest.

‘Mr Jones’ is framed by scenes of George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) writing ‘Animal Farm‘. Orwell’s ‘narration’ comments on the action while maintaining an allegorical distance. At one point, Orwell meets Jones and helps him to resolve an ethical dilemma about what he learned in Russia. The meeting never really took place, but since the ethical dilemma is in all likelihood also fictional, the two sort of cancel each other out.

The first hour of the movie builds an ominous mood of surveillance, control and suppressed violence. It seems unlikely that – even passing himself off as a researcher for former Prime Minister David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham) – Gareth will be able to make his way into the forbidden zone of the Ukraine. When he finally does so, it seems an act of incredible foolhardiness.

But the facts suggest that Jones managed it because, for foreigners, Moscow was like something out of a Boulting Brothers * movie.  They were able to use western money to buy food and clothing from special stores unavailable to most Russians. The majority of foreigners were so hoodwinked by the myth of the ‘socialist utopia’ that they didn’t need much control and the Russians didn’t expect them to go causing trouble. Malcolm Muggeridge (who is briefly name-checked in the movie played by Michael O’Donnell) actually journeyed into the Caucasus and Ukraine just before Jones and slipped reports of the famine out to the Manchester Guardian in the British Embassy’s diplomatic bag so that they would evade Soviet censorship. Muggeridge’s reports were published anonymously, overshadowed by Jones’ subsequent press conference (this isn’t mentioned in the movie, perhaps justly since Muggeridge seemed to do little to acknowledge Jones in later years).

*starring Ian Carmichael as Gareth Jones, Terry-Thomas as Duranty, Colin Gordon as Muggeridge

In the movie, Jones seems to spend days wandering through the snowy wastes, meeting starving farmers and watching bodies being hauled away. The Soviets have tried to rationalise farming on an industrial scale. When the crops have failed, scapegoats have been found charged with sabotage. Eventually, Jones comes to a city and while interviewing a woman at a queue for bread, has a sack thrown over his head by the secret police. In a cavernous prison, he sees engineers for the Metropolitan-Vickers company who have been arrested on charges of economic sabotage. Jones is told that their fates lie in his hand. He can return to England but if he tells what he has seen in the Ukraine, they will be found guilty in a show trial and sentenced to death. As Jones later tells George Orwell, in the meeting that never took place, “I do have a story, but if I tell it six innocent men will die.” Orwell responds, “Speak the truth, regardless of the consequences.” Jones takes Orwell’s fictional advice and tells the world about the famine in the Ukraine. But the viewer ends up wondering how the MetVick engineers were treated as a result.

In fact, although the real Jones was apprehended by the secret police, they were “polite and respectful” and simply escorted him to the nearest foreign consulate. He left Russia quietly, so no ultimatum was handed to him, and he then held a press conference in Germany. The engineers really were put on trial the following month, but although convicted of “sabotage” were merely expelled.

In the movie – as in life – Jones is stitched up by the Foreign Press Corps who support the Russian government denial that there has ever been a famine in order to protect their visas and jobs. The whitewash is led by Duranty, as much to protect his reputation – the film shows him being woken by a furious call from the New York Times wanting to know why they didn’t get Jones’ story about the famine first. Duranty’s actual rebuttal was titled; ‘Russians Hungry But Not Starving’ and concluded that, “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” But despite the personal motivation of the press pack, there was also no political will in the West to recognise what had happened.

Because this is a movie – Gareth Jones does make a final act comeback. And it is based on fact. But despite this personal victory, the wider message was forgotten.

Writing in 1945, George Orwell noted that, “Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles.”

Director Agnieszka Holland has a long distinguished career in Poland, experienced the ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968 and also directed the ‘Moral Midgetry’ episode of The Wire (2004). Screenwriter and producer Andrea Chalupa is the granddaughter of Ukrainian refugees who escaped the events depicted onscreen. She runs Gaslit Nation “a podcast covering corruption in the Trump administration as rising autocracy around the World.” So it seems highly possible that Mr Jones is as much about what’s happening now, as what happened in 1936.

Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine is an essential accompaniment to Mr Jones

Mr Jones is an entertaining movie which reminds us of a long-suppressed horror. Facts behind the movie can be found in Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine (Penguin 2017) which advances the thesis that the famine was an act of deliberate extermination rather than homicidal incompetence. The family of Gareth Jones maintain a website at which you can read his actual reports and diaries at https://www.garethjones.org/index.htm