Civil servant and international journalist Gareth Jones is a curious footnote in world history. Thoroughly British and quintessentially Welsh, his work to expose the human rights abuses at play in 1930s Soviet Russia set the stage for international tensions that would define the lion’s share of the 20th century. His name is not familiar to most, but his story is prime biopic fodder.
Balancing familiar and unfamiliar, convention and subversion, veteran Polish director Agnieszka Holland flexes her seasoned muscles in an effort to build something ingenious and energising in Mr. Jones, as much as it is serious and educational. A film brimming with ambition and imagination, the shame is that Holland’s attempts to freshen up a staid formula fail to cohere into a watchable, intelligible finished piece. Overreaching to break new ground, the magnitude of Mr. Jones’ ambition ultimately invalidates its intent.
Jones himself is depicted capably by BBC period drama alumna James Norton, whose Welsh lilt only wavers occasionally in moments when his emotional range is properly tested. How the character suffers, though, comes from a jarringly inconsistent screenplay by Andrea Chalupa which pivots between extremes at a moment’s notice. Jones is a muted and humble protagonist — sacked early on from an advisory post at the Foreign Office in a time of budget cuts, he remains resolute in carrying out his job by investigating the mysterious prosperity of Russia under Joseph Stalin off-books without the backing of his government. With his considerable jaw perpetually clenched, Norton carries the stoicism and alertness nicely, but is forced to overcompensate when the narrative takes jarring and questionable turns into melodrama, absurdity and, at times, outright horror.
Jones finds himself up against a shady cast of adversaries and potential allies who are hazily sketched and inconsistently depicted. Peter Sarsgaard baffles as Walter Duranty, the New York Times Moscow bureau chief in Stalin’s pocket. With a proclivity for orgies and opium, the character is positioned as the lurid, corrupt antithesis to the noble Jones, but his scenes are blandly written, thus forcing Sarsgaard to dial up his creep factor to disconcerting, distracting levels. Vanessa Kirby barely factors as compromised New York Times correspondent Ada Brooks, who finds herself caught between these two men. Her obstinate belief in the Communist project is hastily junked as she defects to the west and becomes romantically entangled with Jones. Kirby, great elsewhere, is given nothing to work with but moist-eyed reaction shots and bouts of uncharacteristic hysteria.
Interestingly, Mr. Jones does not fail based on its vague blandness alone — the tired, lazy biopic tropes wheeled out are further exacerbated by the innumerable, inexplicable bad gambles Holland chooses to take with its tone and style. As Jones travels first from London to Moscow, and then later from there to the subjugated, famine-ridden villages of the Ukraine, his transit plays out in montage with liberal use of intercut contemporary stock footage, hyper-stylised crossfades and rotating frames, as well as instances of near-comical shutter speed acceleration.
Seemingly desperate to break out of the genre expectations of her story, Holland makes egregious bids to turn Mr. Jones into something beyond its strait-laced nature. An early scene at one of Duranty’s drug-fuelled orgies aims for unnerving psychedelia but lands closer to queasy surreality, never truly capturing the excess and vice in Moscow’s underbelly. As the action moves to the Ukraine, a particularly appalling sequence sees Jones discover that starving children on a barren farm are eating dead family members to survive. Upon learning this, Jones escapes into the woods in a flurry of paranoid quick-cuts and shaky-cams that suggest something closer to B-movie cannibal horror than a prestige biographical feature. The choice is certainly innovative, but deeply inconsiderate of the real hardships undergone in the Ukraine.
Holland is dicey, too, in her handling of politics and the international landscape in the context of the film — a number of characters are true believers in the Stalinist cause, or at least hopeful that the suffering of the Russian experiment will give way to worldwide prosperity and revolution. But Mr. Jones does little to dig into why so many seemingly intelligent people bought into Stalin’s illusions, nor does it explore in any depth how they might wrestle with such ideas after Jones conveys to them the truth. The film’s awkward framing device sees one particularly famous writer sat at his typewriter working on his masterpiece. Portrayed by Joseph Mawle, his arrival into the main narrative is worth leaving unspoilt for the hilarity of its gracelessness. His own teary-eyed revelation that Stalinism is indeed failing beggars belief in its condescending simplicity.
What makes Mr. Jones such a captivating failure is the inherent value in its core story. Jones is a curio in British public life — killed at the age of 29, leaving a resounding legacy while his name went forgotten. Biopics are difficult territory, easily veering into cliche without a strong guiding hand, and it must be appreciated that at least Holland takes risks in order to freshen up the mode. Perhaps her bid for innovation will find a home among viewers with differing tastes, but her choices are stark, and therefore will not suit all palates.
A worthy tale of a pivotal figure, Mr. Jones deserves consideration, even if it is to be met with confusion and scorn.
Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.