A hunger for the truth

A film about the the Holodomor’s exposure should prompt debate on the famine-denialist Walter Duranty

Screen
James Norton as Gareth Jones in "Mr Jones" (©Signature Entertainment)

Inspired by the memoirs of her grandfather, who survived both Stalin’s enforced famine in Ukraine and later torture at the hands of the Soviet secret police, the screenwriter Andrea Chalupa has spent 15 years bringing Mr. Jones to the screen. Directed by Agnieszka Holland, the film is based upon the journey taken by Welsh journalist Gareth Jones to the part of Ukraine where Chalupa’s grandfather lived during that famine. It opens with Jones warning a group of elderly politicians that Hitler’s rise is bringing war closer. The worldly-wise old men mock his impassioned speech. But as we increasingly see, it is Jones’s lone voice that is in the right.   

Jones (who had earlier worked as foreign affairs adviser for the former prime minister David Lloyd George) travels to Moscow to reignite an old friendship and find out how the Soviet regime is funding industrial development. On arrival, he discovers that his friend, a journalist who had hinted that he was on to a big story, has been murdered. 

Vanessa Kirby (Princess Margaret in the first two series of The Crown) is the fragile and conflicted love interest, Ada Brooks. Like many young idealists in the 1930s, she has found that the reality of Soviet Communism falls short of the promised utopia. She reveals that she has the dead journalist’s notebook and Jones sets out to investigate the cover-up.

Jones wangles a trip out of Moscow, where other Western journalists are confined, and then escapes from his minder. He journeys deep into Ukraine, supposedly the country’s breadbasket, where he stumbles across of one of the great horrors of the 20th century: the Holodomor, Stalin’s enforced famine, which the regime is trying to hide from the world.

The luxury of the first-class train he leaves for an unlit cattle car crammed with starving peasants foreshadows what he is to find.

The Soviet Union of the Western imagination is a Potemkin village, a stage-set which hides the brutal reality of repression and mass murder. He almost stumbles over the first of many bodies, lying in the snow on the platform, as he disembarks. Others walk by unconcerned. Narrowly escaping arrest, he finds himself in an almost deserted village, inhabited only by the dead and the dying. The horror unfolds. Body collectors appear and throw a corpse onto the pile already on their sleigh. Then toss a howling infant on top of its dead mother. The shock is a body blow. Worse is to follow.

Despite similarities in the setting, Mr. Jones is no Doctor Zhivago. Where David Lean’s snowscapes had an epic romanticism, Holland’s are dark and bleached of colour. The skies are grey, never blue. Even in Moscow, the grand interiors are bleak: the rooms are vast, the ceilings high, walls bare, the uncarpeted floors—always stone—echo with every step. In Doctor Zhivago, there is hope. Love can still win through. In Mr. Jones, hauntingly, there is none.

Those who know the story will find frustrations. Crucial characters like journalists Eugene Lyons, who also turned on Jones; Malcolm Muggeridge, who broke the famine story too;  and the British engineers working for Metropolitan Vickers cannot be developed. The Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov, at one time a political refugee in Hampstead with a British wife, appears but is not clearly identified. 

Yet many scenes reveal a faithful attention to detail: the typically obstructive receptionist at Jones’s first Moscow hotel, the bribe to get a room at the second one, Ada’s noisy communal flat and Jones’s minder’s row of gold teeth and his unlabelled “half-litre”, the standard vodka bottle, drunk neat with slices of sausage. These all resonate authenticity.   

James Norton’s portrayal of Jones is accomplished. He captures well the youthful determination and enthusiasm, the combination of innocence and wisdom that contrasts sharply with the jaundiced cynicism of the old Russia hands in the Moscow press corps, especially in the repeated conflict with Peter Sarsgaard’s loathsome, unprincipled Walter Duranty, of the New York Times.

“You are really rather dull, Mr Jones,” sneers a drunk Duranty, dressed only in a suspender belt, as the teetotal, non-smoking Jones leaves one of his debauched parties early. In one of the film’s best lines, Jones quips straight back: “Well, I’m standing opposite a completely naked Pulitzer Prize winner. My life can’t be that dull, can it?”

As the story gathers pace, Duranty, by now lauded in both Moscow and Washington, goes on the attack. We become increasingly engaged with the lone Welshman’s costly struggle and are left to reflect upon the enduring temptation of moral compromise in a troubled world.

In real life, Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize has remained a sore point. In 2003, the Pulitzer Committee refused appeals to revoke it on the grounds that the award was for articles written in 1931, two years before Duranty dismissed Jones’s famine reports as a worthless “scare story”. No action, the Committee insisted, could be taken without evidence of “clear and convincing deliberate deception” in the earlier articles. We now know that that evidence exists. At the time that he wrote them, Duranty told a diplomat that, by agreement between the New York Times and Moscow, his reports reflected the Soviet propaganda line. Mr. Jones should prompt a rethink of that—and more.


Mr. Jones opens in UK cinemas on February 7. Jones is also the hero of “The Useful Idiot”,
a new thriller by the journalist John Sweeney