directed by Agnieszka Holland
In Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s latest movie, a journalist carries a burden as he uncovers the horror of Stalin’s revolution in Ukraine.
Later that year, in a similar expedition of mythbusting, Jones set off for the Soviet Union, attempting to determine whether the workers’ paradise promised by the October Revolution had really come to fruition. What he found instead, as veteran Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s film documents with serious-minded and sensitive rigour, was Stalin’s genocidal famine waged on the peasantry of Ukraine, what is today called Holodomor: literally, “hunger extermination”.
Mr Jones is not a grand tragedy in the manner of David Lean, choking the horror with the fumes of melodrama. Rather, Holland (In Darkness) tells the small story of Jones’ chilly trek into the maw: blasted empty crop fields, shuffling ragbound peasants, a shocking encounter with several children who reveal – horrifyingly – how they have survived.
In fact, the film isn’t really concerned with terror-famine itself and explaining its causes and consequences. Rather, it interrogates how we might react to the presence of horror and how we make ourselves complicit by silence. For Jones, admirably performed by James Norton, the burden of knowing the truth – and having endured it – carries a responsibility to inform the world. He is the purest of hearts, indignant and untainted.
Compare Jones with his foil Walter Duranty, the New York Times’ renowned Moscow correspondent, a Stalin apologist played by Peter Sarsgaard. It was Duranty, whose coverage denied the famine, who coined the hideous aphorism “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”. In a way, this is an indictment of the courtier press: those whose prestige and fame come from their access, not their talent or moral clarity.
Mr Jones also contains a very rare thing: a screen version of George Orwell. While there’s no real evidence to suggest they met, and the film overeggs the suggestion a character in Animal Farm was named in honour of Jones, it’s nonetheless a lovely portrayal by Joseph Mawle.
In contrast to his popular reputation as a rangy, hard-headed proletarian, Orwell is played as sweetly shy and achingly anxious. “Are you saying there’s no hope?” he begs of Jones when the full awfulness of the Holodomor is revealed. There may be no hope, but there is a duty – a duty honoured by this important film – to tell the truth when it matters most.
IN CINEMAS NOW
Video: Rialto Distribution
This article was first published in the March 7, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.