Movies about crusading journalists tend to feature pavement-pounding, persuasive phone calls and explosive revelations. There’s usually a scene in some kind of archive and at least one shouty confrontation with an exasperated editor. Then someone wins a Pulitzer Prize. Refreshingly, Agnieszka Holland’s well-acted historical drama ticks few of those boxes. And though someone does win a Pulitzer, it’s not who you’d expect. History is a knotty, complicated business, it’s saying: go with it.
That’s not to say ‘Mr Jones’ plays like a dusty textbook about the Soviet Union in the early ‘30s. James Norton shows his range as the owlish title character, a Welsh journo whose tenacity has recently secured him an interview with Hitler. Heading to Russia hoping to repeat the trick with Stalin, he is soon diverted by rumours that the dictator is orchestrating a secret famine in the Ukraine. Real gravitas underpins his true-life efforts to take this story to the world – even as others, including Peter Sarsgaard’s oily New York Times stringer and wavering Stalin apologist George Orwell (Joseph Mawle), dispute the evidence.
Holland and first-time screenwriter Andrea Chalupa up the stakes by including scenes of the famine itself during a snowy, mid-movie trudge. They are genuinely upsetting and lend the second half of the film an urgency that the first slightly lacks, consumed as it is in scene-setting in dusty government chambers. If a subplot showing Orwell writing ‘Animal Farm’ as he becomes persuaded by Jones’s evidence doesn’t entirely work, there’s plenty in this thoughtful journalism drama that does. And not a single scene in a car park.