★★★★ - STUFF
- The Ukrainian famine of 1932 to 1934 – The Holodomor – is a still little understood disaster.
Whether or not the mass starvation was the result of a deliberate policy by Joseph Stalin to destroy the Ukrainian resistance movement is debated, as is the number of deaths. Three million is at the lower end of the estimates, the upper is in excess of 10 million deaths.
Were it not for the efforts of a few exceptionally brave journalists, the famine may have remained almost unknown in the West. And the first of these journalists – arguably – was the Welsh reporter Gareth Jones.
By 1933, Jones had achieved some fame – and notoriety – for obtaining an interview with the then chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler. He travelled to the USSR intending to interview leader Joseph Stalin, but found himself put under far stricter travel conditions than he had been expecting.
Jones evaded his Soviet minders by jumping a train bound for the Ukraine, where he was horrified by the conditions he found. Entire villages and regions were literally being starved to death, with all the shocking loss of humanity that starvation brings. Cannibalism was not uncommon.
Back in Moscow, party officials were still feasting on the finest caviar and champagne.
Once he was out of the USSR, Jones wrote what he saw. And was promptly banned from ever visiting the country again.
His reports were doubted at first – and were the subject of a Soviet disinformation campaign aimed at rebutting them. But it was eventually widely accepted that an unimaginable crime against its own people had been perpetrated by Stalin's regime.
Mr Jones is an extraordinarily well-staged and performed document of Jones' travels and work. Veteran Polish director Agnieszka Holland is one of the most storied and versatile film-makers working today, with a 50-year-and-counting career that encompasses everything from the Academy Award-nominated Europa Europa to episodes of The Wire and House of Cards. Her years of experience and undimmed passion for telling a tough story well are just perfect in the service of this knotty and potentially leaden material.
Holland keeps the intrigue and action to the fore and allows James Norton (Little Women, and my pick to be the next James Bond), Vanessa Kirby (The Crown), Peter Sarsgaard (Black Mass) and the rest of a very good cast enough room in the frame to move around and find for themselves the moments that matter in the script.
Mr Jones is a historical film done well. It is compelling, engrossing and shocking, but never bleak or morbid. Bravo.
- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF