I was interested in seeing Mr. Jones at the VIFF as it’s based on a topic of my interest: the Holodomor or Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933. It’s an intriguing story with a relevant message for today’s world.
In 1933, Gareth Jones is a 28 year-old Welsh journalist who is very good at getting stories. He was the first foreign journalist to fly with Hitler and Goebbels at the start of Hitler’s regime while working as an advisor for British statesman Herman Lloyd George. During the time, he discovered of Hitler’s intentions to wage war. His story fell to deaf ears in the press and his job as advisor is dropped due to budget cuts. Despite being dropped, George gave Jones a letter of recommendation. He hopes to use it to go to the USSR to find an investigative journalist. Before he does, he gets a phone call from a friend named Paul Kleb in the USSR. He talks of how the economy is booming in Russia, but he is about to tell of something terrible happening in Ukraine… and then he gets disconnected.
Jones arrives in Moscow. His trip is regulated from start to finish: what he does, how long he stays and where he goes. That’s how things are in the USSR. In fact his job as a foreign journalist is under heavy scrutiny by national officials during his stay and no foreign journalist is allowed outside of Moscow. He arrives at the hotel in Moscow of New York Times bureau chief Walter Duranty. Duranty welcomes him and introduces him to his assistant Ada Brooks. Jones is expected to be in the USSR for seven days but he can only stay at the hotel for two days. Duranty offers Jones to stay and partake in the late-night partying. At the parties is all kinds of debauchery from prostitutes to heroin shooting to even homosexual advances. Jones wants none of this as he knows Paul Kleb was killed in Ukraine and has to find out why.
Jones finds a train headed to Eastern Ukraine. He breezes past security to stow away on it. When he arrives in Ukraine, he steps off to see the farmed grains loaded onto trucks by the Soviet army, but people dead in the snow and farmers starving. He tries to get answers. He goes to soldiers putting the bagged grain in a truck. He asks in English where it’s going, but is suspected as a spy. Soldiers go out chasing and shooting after him. Fortunately, Jones is able to evade the pursuit. He comes across some children who sing a haunting song to him of the death and starvation happening around him. He goes to a house which is in a photograph he holds, but sees the residents dead in their beds. Jones goes into a town where he sees the Soviet army take the dead bodies in the snow and pile them in a sled to be buried in a mass grave. They even take a baby that’s alive and still crying. Jones goes into a house where he is able to find living residents. They give him something to eat, which appears to be meat, and from Kolya. He soon learns they’re staying alive by cannibalism, and Kolya is a famine fatality.
Soon Jones is captured by Soviet forces. The Communist government commands him to be silent by using the lives of six British auto workers as hostages. Jones tries to plead with Walter Duranty to expose the truth of what’s happening, but Duranty is ‘in bed’ with the Soviet regime. Duranty has a habit of writing of the ‘Worker’s Revolution’ in the USSR like he romanticizing it. In fact Duranty has the reputation of being known as ‘Our Man In Moscow.’ Ada however is more supportive towards Jones and believes he has to get the story out. This can’t be hidden and knowing that Jones is to be sent back to the UK, she encourages him to make the truth known.
Back in the UK, Jones can’t get any British paper to buy into his revelations of a man-made famine. The government either doesn’t want to believe it, or fear it will jeopardize diplomatic relations with the USSR. This upsets Jones as he knows this must be stopped. The events upset him so much, he can’t stop himself from breaking down in tears in his hometown. However he has an opportunity to talk to William Randolph Hearst while at a newspaper office. Hearst, however is extremely busy and will only allow Jones thirty seconds to state his case. However when he mentions of the death of Paul Kleb, that grabs Hearst’s ear and makes Hearst want to hear everything Jones saw. Finally the story ‘Famine In Ukraine’ makes the front page of the New York Times. Jones is defamed. He is not allowed in the USSR again. Duranty is also defamed, but never had his Pulitzer Prize rescinded. Nevertheless George Orwell is caught in the intrigue of Jones’ pursuits and it inspires him to write ‘Animal Farm’ published ten years after Jones was shot to death.
I’ll admit any story about the Holodomor catches my interest. I’m of Ukrainian ancestry. My great-grandparents arrived in Canada around the 1890’s-early 1900’s. They came here long before World War I even started, before Ukrainian land was annexed as part of the USSR and before the Holodomor. This film showcases the Holodomor and is possibly one of the best cinematic depictions of it, but the Holodomor is not the biggest theme of the film. The biggest theme of the film is about censorship in the USSR at the time. All the censorship that happened in the film is an example of the censorship that happened in the USSR since it began after World War II until it broke down in the mid-80’s to when it dissolved in 1991. All news was censored. Nothing but good news was to be published in Soviet newspapers and whatever negative news could not hit either Soviet news nor news to the outside world. Phone wires were tapped and letters were opened and investigated by authorities before it reached the mailboxes of the citizens or outsiders. Even speaking negative words of the Communist government would get one a jail sentence. The Soviet media promoted propaganda to glorify itself and its Communist system and vilify the capitalist system in the United States.
As seen through Gareth, the Soviet system was also restrictive to outsiders. The system decided if a person from an outside country could visit, where they could go and stay and for how long. There were already six British autoworkers who were treated like hostages at the time and threatened with death to have the UK comply to their demands. You can understand just what Jones had to face in order to get the truth out.
Gareth had good reason to pursue the story. It’s not just trying to find out why Paul Kleb died, but Ukraine had personal interest to him as his mother taught English in Ukraine in the 1890’s. Gareth even had barriers in journalism to overcome once he had his story. He had top journalist Walter Duranty to deal with. Duranty had a big reputation at stake and kept insisting that the Holodomor isn’t happening. It isn’t until Jones meets with William Randolph Hearst that he finally gets a willing ear. The big feud between Duranty and Jones shows how even in what is supposed to be the ‘free world,’ there is still a lot of truths that are suppressed or even denied. Seeing all that goes on can make one wonder if this is happening today in what is supposed to be free countries. If we are really getting this freedom of speech or if we’re getting a lot of concocted stories.
This film is great in making a point about journalism and getting the truth out. There are a lot of truth even in today’s world that need to be exposed, but are covered up. The film does a good job in making a moment of past history, and the journalistic feuding surrounding it, make for a relevant message for today. Even the fact that Gareth was shot to death in 1935 while investigating a story in Chinese territory bordering Russia (which many consider to be a Soviet plot of revenge) reminds us of how many journalists risk their lives to uncover truths.
The film was very good at making its point. However the story didn’t seem to be heading on a straight path. There were times when moments that only deserved a certain time, like all the debauchery at Duranty’s hotel party, was slowed down and given more screen time than necessary. Even the moments of the journalistic feuding and political feuding appeared to take too long. The moments involving Jones witnessing the Holodomor in Ukraine were given the best screen time and the best on-screen depiction. It showed a lot of brutal honesty of the Holodomor, including that of cannibalism. It may have taken over less than half the screen-time, but it was done in excellent detail and gave the right haunting feel to this moment of tragedy.
Veteran director Agnieszka Holland teams up with emerging writer Andrea Chalupa to bring this story to the big screen. The story is one of great personal interest to Holland as she is well-knowledged of the Holodomor. Holland also has renown for her depictions of the Holocaust in some of her films. She does a very good job in directing the story, even if there are some moments of irrelevance or moments drawn out longer than they should be. James Norton does a good job in his portrayal of journalist Gareth Jones, but his part could have been developed more. Most of the parts didn’t have too much development and could have had more done with it. Nevertheless, Peter Saarsgard was able to make Walter Duranty hateable on the big screen. Vanessa Kirby was able to make her role of Ada gain more dimension over time.
Mr. Jones is about more than just about the Holodomor. It’s also about the topic of censorship that is just as relevant now with the ‘freedom of speech’ we’re led to believe we have in the ‘free world.’
At first one would think that The Shape Of Water is another science fiction movie with a bizarre story, but it turns out to be a story that’s a lot more than that.
Eliza Esposito is a mute woman in Baltimore in 1962. Orphaned at a young age, she lives in an apartment just above a movie theatre and works as a janitor in a secret government laboratory. She only has two friends. The first is Giles: a gay advertising artist who lives next door to her. They often eat pie and watch entertainment together. The second is Zelda: an African American woman she communicates with in sign language. It’s through Zelda she can tell her biggest secrets.
One day, a creature is brought to the laboratory. It’s a sea creature from South America captured by Colonel Richard Strickland. Right when she sees the creature, she notices something about him. That the creature has some human-like traits. Both Zelda and Eliza sense something wrong with Colonel Strickland as he comes across in a gruff manner. They also notice he brought a cattle prod that has blood on it. Eliza notices the blood travels in a unique pattern.
Later Strickland is attacked by the creature, bleeding badly and lost two of his fingers which get reattached shortly after. As Strickland is being tended to, Eliza wonders who is this creature and what do they want from him? Eliza soon develops a bond with the creature and discovers it’s a humanoid amphibian. She gives him eggs to eat, music to listen to, and communicates with him through sign language.
There are different plans people have for this creature. General Hoyt wants Strickland to dissect it for the possibility of an advantage in the Space Race. Scientist Robert Hoffstetler, who is secretly a Soviet spy, tries to convince his masters to keep the creature alive for scientific study. The Soviet spymasters disagree and want him euthanized.
When Eliza learns of Hoyt and Strickland’s plans for the creature, she tried to persuade Giles to assist, but he rejects at first. It’s after a failed attempt at hitting on the pie man that he agrees to comply. Zelda is also opposed to it at first, fearing for but her job and Eliza’s, but she agrees to help. Hoffstetler tells Eliza he’s aware of her plan and is willing to help.
The plan is to help the creature escape where no one can see. Zelda keeps a close eye on the coast. Hoffstetler helps in the distracting of the surveillance cameras just as Zelda makes the adjustment, and even has a bomb on the power base set to explode at the right minute. Giles rents a truck and paints it to look like the laundry pick-up truck. Eliza is able to get the creature into the laundry bin. Just as it appears that Giles is about to get stopped by security, Hoffstetler injects sleeping medicine into the guard’s neck. The pick-up and escape is successful, but not without smashing Strickland’s new blue Cadillac!
Eliza keeps the creature in her apartment. She keeps it in her bathtub which she mixes with salt and plants. She plans to release it into a canal in a few days one it opens to the ocean. She’s well aware that Strickland still wants the creature. Strickland even meets with Eliza and Zelda to interrogate, but both are able to keep the truth hidden from him.
Back at the apartment, the creature leaves Eliza’s suite and visits Giles’ suite. He takes an interest in his drawings and the television, and thinks one of his cats is food! The creature runs off again just after he slashes Giles’ arm. Eliza goes searching for the creature and finds him in the movie theatre staring at the screen. The relationship between Eliza and the creature grows. She becomes more than just his protector, but his lover. She herself can even acquire the ability to make shapes with water. She even tells all to Zelda, to her surprise. The creature even helps Giles heal from his wounds. Giles eventually opens up to him just after. Eliza gets sexually involved with the creature even to the point she tries to flood her whole bathroom to have underwater sex! Much to the disappointment of the cinema owner down below!
However time is running out for all. General Hoyt gives Strickland an ultimatum of 36 hours to return the creature back. For not helping with keeping the creature, Hoffsteler is told by his superiors he will be extracted in two days. However the creature’s health is failing and he will have to be returned to the water. The day Eliza planned to take the creature to the canal comes. Giles agrees to help drive the creature to the canal when the day comes.
Meanwhile Hoffsteler meets with his handlers and is shot, but not until Strickland intervenes and shoots the handlers dead. He forces Hoffsteler to reveal who took the creature. Strickland then goes to Zelda’s house. To the shock of her and her husband, Strickland arrives and threatens Zelda to reveal Eliza has been keeping the creature. Zelda then telephones Eliza and Giles warning them of Strickland. The time to take the creature to the canal is now. The creature wants Eliza to come with him, but Eliza insists it’s better for him to go alone. The scene ends on a dramatic note and an ending that’s unexpected, but is the right ending for the film.
This does make for a bizarre story of a recently-discovered sea creature and a woman’s romantic connection to the creature. We’ve seen Beauty-And-The-Beast type of movies before like King Kong or Creature Of The Black Lagoon. The funny thing about this is that it actually succeeds as a romance. The first thing that makes it work is that there’s a real connection between the woman and the creature. Rightly so because Eliza is the first to connect with the creature and connects with him in the biggest way. All Eliza had before was her job and the friendships with Giles and Zelda. Here she finds a being that she not only connects with, but becomes her soul mate. The one that completes her. They were two lonely people who were united by fate of the most impossible kind. You could understand why the ending made sense. It was through the magic of the creature’s healing that she is able to live in his world and his world only.
The most interesting thing of the film is its connection of the various arts. It’s more than just nostalgia. It reminds you of the charm and the feel of such entertainment back then that most people overlook. However it’s through those various arts that the sea creature gets a sense of human vitality and even embraces it into his own life. The art he comes across helps him communicate in the human world and gives him his human-like qualities. From the music Eliza plays to the images on the movie screen to even watching a hokey episode of Mr. Ed on Giles’ television, the entertainment is his connection to his human traits. It even helps him experience his feelings of love which he has for Eliza. You could understand why that one scene where Eliza was not a mute –that musical number where she dances with the creature– makes sense. It’s through art that she’s able to express her love for the creature: the one being that doesn’t make her feel like an outsider at all.
The creature doesn’t just affect the lives of Eliza, but of the two closest to her too. Soon after Giles has a change of heart and helps the creature’s escape, Giles opens up to the creature and soon makes him a part of his own art. As Zelda helps the creature escape, she too develops an inner strength in her and is able to stand up for herself to her husband. It’s something to think about. The three main characters are all misfits in 1962 Baltimore. Eliza is a mute, Giles is gay, and Zelda is black. However it’s through this creature that Eliza finds a soul mate, Giles finds a purpose and Zelda finds an inner strength.
I give top credit to Gullermo del Toro. The story he directed and co-wrote with Vanessa Taylor is comical and had a lot of good drama, but it’s the human element that shines in the story line. Del Toro would admit in an interview that this is inspired by The Creature From The Black Lagoon and always dreamt of seeing Gill-Man succeed in the romance to Kay Lawrence. I can sometimes see hints of Pan’s Labyrinth in the story. It’s interesting how he creates this story that romanticizes the entertainment of the time as well as reminds us of the hysteria of Communism at the time too, as well as the racism. All of this makes the charm of the film.
The acting is the biggest strength of the film. The best comes from Sally Hawkins in playing a mute who best communicates to the sea creature with her feelings and with the power of art. Richard Jenkins is also excellent as Eliza’s loner friend who finds a new purpose in life through the creature. Another excellent performance is from Octavia Spencer playing the friend closest to her side. Also very good acting from Michael Shannon. You often wonder if Strickland is heartless or just plain under the thumb of the Colonel. You know he’s troubled when you see the amount of pills he takes. Excellent work for Doug Jones. One again, he does excellent work as the creature in Guillermo del Toro’s movies. Most of you remember him as the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth. You could say Doug Jones is to del Toro’s movies what Andy Serkis is to Lord Of The Rings’ Gollum.
The film has a lot of excellent technical aspects too. There’s the costuming and make-up team that made up the costume of the creature, as well as the visual effects team that made the ‘blue effect’ of the creature’s skin. There’s the production design team that made an excellent set that dates back to the early 1960’s to a tee, even with the movie theatre. There’s Luis Sequeira that designed the right costumes and outfits for the actors as well. Finally, there’s the mix of the music of the time mixed with the imaginative score of Alexandre Desplat. Desplat knows how to compose for a movie.
The Shape Of Water is more than just a creature-and-woman romance we’re familiar with. It succeeds in having the feel of an actual romance and successfully convey the feelings of love. In the end, the romance looks so right! That’s its magic.