We live in an era of fake news and big brother, our every move being captured somewhere and our leaders taking us for fools. So I was looking forward to seeing how history is simply repeating itself in this based-on-a-true story movie about a young journalist, Gareth Jones, who uncovers Russia’s great secret in 1933 but fails to get anyone to do anything about it.
We first meet him, flushed by his successful interview with Hitler, trying to persuade his boss British PM Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham) to send him Russia to interview Stalin. Jones is convinced that Hitler is a great threat to the world as is Stalin, whose rhetoric and economic success he finds hard to fathom. Lloyd Jones and his coterie of ministers refuse to listen and he is soon out of a job. Posing as a journalist he manages to get to Russia determined to carry out his mission.
On arrival in Moscow he discovers the friend he was relying on to fix up the interview has been killed by some ‘bandits’ – improbably outside the Metropole hotel. He resorts to seeking the help of the sinister and sybaritic New York Times Bureau Chief Walter Duranty, louchely and deliciously played by Peter Sarsgaard, whose parties are notorious – poor Jones, a teetotaler and a bit of a prig (Edward Norton in specs and a jumper can look pretty geeky), is astonished to find himself in a room full of naked people – Duranty included, shooting up and passing out. It seems Moscow, like Isherwood’s Berlin, is a city where everything is for sale and there are willing buyers.
He is amazed and suspicious when a senior official offers to show him the Ukraine to see for himself the source of Russia’s gold. Jones has a double motive, it was his mother’s birthplace and he is determined to make a pilgrimage to the family home. Giving his minder the slip he leaps off the train into the vast wilderness of Russia’s breadbasket in mid-winter.
The film is slow-paced throughout, but here it becomes grey and monochromatic as the extent of the truth is slowly revealed. Casually peeling an apple in a train, Jones is horrified when two kids fight over his carelessly discarded skin. When a coat is worth a loaf of bread things are seriously wrong.
His shocking discoveries, beautifully filmed, documentary style, of frozen bodies, starving feral children, frightened wolves and nothing to eat save bark and worse, reconfirm his desire to reveal the truth about the ‘success’ of Stalin’s programme of collectivisation. We know now that several millions of people died in this genocide – starved by the state ruthlessly robbing the grain and leaving the peasants to their fate. But in the 1930s no one was willing to listen, as it risked catapulting the western powers into a war with Russia, just when Germany was beginning to rattle its machine guns.
Jones was a friend of George Orwell (here rather well represented by Joseph Mawle), and his findings inspired Animal Farm. Director Agnieszka Holland uses the well-known quotes to good effect during the film, to punctuate its rather over-long and monotonous tone; there is drama but it all feels a bit flat, probably because Jones himself is not charismatic, being rather worthy and humourless. Even his almost romance with the New York Times journalist, Ada Brooks, the sultry Vanessa Kirby, feels dull and unrequited. As in the rest of the film there is no spark.
It’s a shame really, because it is a cracking story and as relevant today as it was in the thirties. We are faced with equally odious despotic leaders – from both north, west, east and south – who have no compunction about lying to suit their own agendas, and we have learned nothing. Plus ca change.