The Reel Review
James Norton stars in this historical drama about Gareth Jones, the Welsh journalist who first told the world about the Holodomor, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s man-made famine in 1932-33 that killed at least 3.5 million ethnic Ukrainians – at least a tenth of Ukraine’s population. This film highlights his shocking first hand trip to the region and attempts by the Soviet government and complicit foreign journalists to silence him.
Oscar-nominated director Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, In Darkness) creates a highly-stylized portrait of the genocide, which makes up for newcomer Andrea Chalupa’s earnest but muddled screenplay – most notably, distracting flash-forwards of George Orwell writing his famous, anti-Stalin novel, Animal Farm. After a sluggish start, Jones arrives in Moscow, discovering his main contact has died under mysterious circumstances. On top of that, Soviet authorities have restricted travel by foreign journalists, who seem more interested in attending heroin-fueled sex parties than doing their jobs. Jones quickly sneaks off on a dangerous and unsanctioned trip to famine-stricken Ukraine.
It is at this point where Holland, in move reminiscent of Schindler’s List, cleverly switches to a nearly complete black and white color palette with rare, purposeful pops of color. These lingering scenes of starvation, death and even cannibalism are deeply disturbing and haunting. And Norton (Happy Valley, Little Women) is mesmerizing as the journalist witnessing the bone-chilling horror. This portion of the film is exceptional.
Peter Sarsgaard (Jackie, The Skeleton Key) is appropriately sleazy as New York Times Moscow Bureau Chief Walter Duranty – the Pulitzer Prize winner who famously first ignored, and then denied there was a famine. Years later he would be vilified as a spineless Stalin apologist. The talented Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman, The Crown), while adding color as Duranty’s morally-conflicted assistant, is frustratingly underutilized. Regardless, despite its shortcomings, Holland’s film is powerful – a reminder of the importance of journalistic integrity.
• In November 2009, Jones’ diaries recording the man-made genocide of the Great Soviet Famine of 1932-33 were unveiled at the Wren Library of Trinity College in Cambridge, England. To see the diaries click here: garethjones.org.
• While Gareth Jones’ descendants were happy that Mr. Jones highlights his exposé of Stalin’s Holodomor against ethnic Ukrainians, they did take issue with some dramatic liberties in the film. They said there was no romantic involvement while he was in the Soviet Union, nor did Jones accidentally commit or even witness cannibalism.
• Walter Duranty died in Orlando, Florida in 1973. In 1990, The New York Times, requesting that his Pulitzer be stripped, wrote that Duranty’s articles denying the Soviet famine constituted “some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper.” 13 years later, the Pulitzer Prize board still refused to revoke his Pulitzer.
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