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.’
Remember those popular Big Eyes paintings from the 60’s? Did you know about the story of art forgery behind it? Some of you will first think that the film Big Eyes is about art. As true as that is, it’s also a drama about art forgery and the ones caught in the middle. This is especially of intrigue to those who remember the ‘big eyes’ paintings from the 60’s.
The film begins with Margaret Ulbrich arriving in San Francisco with her daughter. She has recently divorced her husband and is hoping to make it as an artist. Art is not only her best skill but it’s her one and only skill in terms of employability. At first she’s hired by a furniture factory to paint drawings on children’s furniture. She does drawings of caricatures in a San Francisco market to make extra change.
Soon she catches the attention of a successful ‘artist’ by the name of Walter Keane. He’s impressed with her ‘big eyes’ caricatures she draws. They’re based off the wide eyes of her daughter Jane and Margaret even says that children’s eyes are the windows to their souls. Walter promises Margaret that he can make her art famous. He’s a good salesman as he knows how to sell real estate and his own art: painting of Paris where he claims to have been inspired by the city even though spending a mere week in it. She agrees and the two marry.
This comes as a welcome relief for Margaret as she is threatened to lose custody of Jane because she can’t afford to care for her. This is also a relief for Walter as his paintings of Paris are declining in sales. Soon Walter promotes the big eyes paintings at restaurants. He’s even willing to create phony brawls to stimulate news hype. Whatever he does, it works and the big eyes painting are catching a ton of renown.
However the secret of the success is exposed to Margaret and it’s ugly. Walter is claiming the paintings as his own. As the paintings become more popular and Walter becomes more famous, they become more and more in demand. That leads Walter to keep Amy in a hidden room where she’s to paint all the portraits. She’s practically exiled away from everyone including friends and her own daughter. Further friction grows when Margaret learns the truth about the Paris paintings. They were actually painted by an artist going by S. Cenic. Somehow Walter is able to talk his way out of it.
The real turning point is when the giant painting of a crowd of big-eyed children to be displayed at a pavilion during Expo 1964 is dissed by art critic John Canaday as ‘appalling.’ Keane can’t take it. He tries to stab Canaday but fails. He tried locking Margaret and Jane in a closet and setting it ablaze. Fortunately they escape and find a new life for themselves in Hawaii. However it’s after a visit from two Jehovah’s Witnesses that Margaret is prompted to bring Walter to justice. The trial goes with Walter playing his own attorney and doing a big song and dance for the jury but there comes the moment of truth. The film ends rather conventionally but will leave the audience satisfied justice was done.
One thing we should not forget is that art forgery is nothing new. There have been imposters claiming paintings and other works of art in the past. However this makes for an intriguing story. There are many elements why one would consider this intriguing. One would be people who remember the big eyes painting and still like them to this day. Another would be because of the conniving nature of Walter who knows how to get his way until the score is finally settled. I’m sure there’s something many people can find intriguing with the film to want to see it.
However the film doesn’t make itself too clear about what it is primarily all about. I do give the film credit for showing a story of art forgery and both the artist and scammer. I do give credit for showcasing the thriving and influential San Francisco art scene form the 50’s and 60’s. I also give the film credit about showing just how much of a conniver Walter Keane was to the point he felt he could kill a critic and even connive a judge in the court of law. And I especially give the film credit for showing the mother-daughter relationship involved with the story. In fact that was one of my favorite parts of the film where after Margaret left Walter, Margaret became a typical mother again and Jane became a typical daughter again. However it does leave one to wonder if it was mostly to do about the art or to do about the forgery behind it? It’s very possible to balance those two elements out appropriately on film but I just wonder if it was balanced out right.
Amy Adams did a very good job of portraying Margaret Keane. However I’ve seen better acting performances from her in the past. Christoph Waltz was also very good as the conniving Walter Keane. He succeeds at making you hate Walter and get annoyed with him. However there are times in which I think his role of Walter is a bit too close to his Oscar-winning roles of Hans Landa and King Schultz. Danny Huston also did well in the role of Dick Nolan. However it does seem odd how the narrator of all that’s happening gets so little screen time. There were additional good performances in minor roles from Terence Stamp and Jason Schwartzman.
Tim Burton did a good job of directing a film that doesn’t seem too much like your typical Tim Burton film. Interesting fact is that Burton owns two of Keane’s paintings.
Scriptwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski did a good job with the script even though it lacked consistency and focus. The set designers and costumers did a very good job in setting the scenes to the time of the film. And the score by Danny Elfman also fit the movie well.
Big Eyes is an intriguing look at the artist, the art and the forgery behind it. Even though the story was a bit off in terms of focus to its central theme, it does keep one interested.