The Polish director Agnieszka Holland, now seventy-one, has toiled in many fields. “The Secret Garden” (1993) and “Washington Square” (1997) point to a predilection for bookish costume drama, yet Holland also made three episodes of “The Wire.” Her most tenacious work has centered on lone figures, as they seek to outwit, or simply to withstand, the weight of authoritarian threat. “Europa Europa” (1990) is based on the true story of a German Jewish boy who joined the Hitler Youth. “Burning Bush” (2013), a three-part series for HBO, is based on the true story of Jan Palach, who immolated himself in protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. And Holland’s new film, “Mr. Jones,” is based on the true story of a young Welshman who found a terrible tale to tell.
The man in question is Gareth Jones (James Norton), an adviser to David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), formerly the British Prime Minister. It is the early nineteen-thirties, and Jones is met with condescending mirth when he tells a group of graying British high-ups that Hitler is intent on war. Jones, however, knows whereof he speaks; he interviewed the Führer, on a plane, and, for his next scoop, he hopes to talk to Stalin. He therefore travels to Moscow, as an independent journalist, and although the interview never happens, the dogged Jones remains perplexed by the boom in Soviet industry. How is it being funded? “Grain is Stalin’s gold,” he is told. And where is much of the grain traditionally reaped? Ukraine. So that is where Jones goes. As Lloyd George said of him, “He had the almost unfailing knack of getting at things that mattered.”
What matters in “Mr. Jones” is the Holodomor, the famine that befell Ukraine in the years 1932-33. Current scholarship estimates that just under four million people died. They did not pass away from natural causes. The best and the most detailed English-language study of the subject is “Red Famine,” a 2017 book by Anne Applebaum, who demonstrates that starvation was a deliberate policy, enforced by Stalin through the requisition of crops and other products and the widespread persecution, deportation, or even execution of the non-compliant. His grand scheme of collectivized farming had failed, as any local farmer could have predicted, yet it was not ideologically allowed to fail. Who better than the Ukrainians, so often distrusted and demonized by Moscow, to be cast as scapegoats and saboteurs?
Dramatizing a theme of such enormity is a test for any filmmaker. Holland’s response is threefold. First, she shadows virtually every scene with a distorting darkness, as if prophesying doom, long before the action reaches Ukraine. Second, she introduces none other than George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) as a framing device. At the outset, we find him at work on “Animal Farm,” the implication being that the novel—which boasts a Mr. Jones, a farmer, in the opening sentence—was inspired, or informed, by what we are about to witness. (A curious move; if, as a film director, you have faith in the strength of your narrative, why should it need an extra boost?) Later, the link is made explicit, as Jones, returned from his mission, is introduced to Orwell, though whether such a meeting ever took place is open to debate.
Holland’s third tactic, as Jones journeys through the blighted landscapes of Ukraine, is to show us only what he sees, in the hope that a deep note of universal suffering will resound through the particular. Thus, when Jones eats an orange on a train and discards the peel, his fellow-passengers lunge and scrap for the nutritious prize. Alighting at a secluded railroad station, he passes a body on the platform. Lying there, frozen and unremarked, it is meant to represent the innumerable dead who are strewn around the countryside like litter. The same goes for the scene in which a baby, though still alive and crying, is tossed onto a cart with the already deceased, to save time; or the lumps of meat that are cooked and eaten by children, having been cut from the remains of their brother.
None of these monstrosities are inflated. Applebaum’s book includes a lengthy section on cannibalism. (Some parents consumed their offspring, survived, and, having woken to the realization of what they had done, went mad. By then, they were in the Gulag. How much hell do you want?) In a feature film, though, isolated horrors are liable to come across as eruptions of a foul surrealism rather than as testamentary evidence, and we don’t—or can’t—always make the imaginative leap in scale. When Jones himself grows famished, and chews in desperation on tree bark, we are scarcely moved, for the plight of one outsider, from the well-fed West, is of no consequence in the apocalypse of hunger.
This is no reflection on Norton, who is plausibly stricken as the pale and bespectacled Jones, and we share his frustration when his reports on the Holodomor, delivered after he is thrown out of the Soviet Union, have only a limited impact. They are scorned by the New York Times correspondent in Moscow, Walter Duranty, played by Peter Sarsgaard as a limping and low-lidded slimeball. (Just in case we doubt his nefarious credentials, he hosts a languid orgy at his apartment.) It was Duranty who, in brushing off Jones’s account of the atrocities, blithely explained to Times readers, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs”—one of the most shameful phrases in the history of the newspaper. The eggs were human beings.
This determination not to know, or to look away when the facts admonish our beliefs, is among our most durable frailties, and Duranty was but the first of many skeptics. As late as 1988, an article in the Village Voice, reviling “one-note faminologists” and accusing them of falsehood, bore the subtitle “A 55-Year-Old Famine Feeds the Right,” as if the urge to verify hardship and grief were no more than a Reaganite affectation. Twenty years later, Dimitry Medvedev, Russia’s President at the time, referred to the “so-called Holodomor.” Any discussion of Ukraine’s being intentionally victimized, he added, would be “cynical and immoral.” As for the valiant Jones, he was murdered in Inner Mongolia, in 1935, allegedly by Chinese bandits, though suspicions linger that the Soviets had a vengeful hand in his demise. Is it conceivable that Holland’s bleak, murky, and instructive film could prompt a change of heart in the current Russian establishment, or even a confession of crimes past? Not a chance.
The new film from Olivier Assayas, “Wasp Network,” is a mirror image of “Mr. Jones.” Instead of a Westerner entering a Communist state, we have Communists infiltrating the West—Cuban spies, dispatched undercover to Miami. The decade is not the nineteen-thirties but the nineteen-nineties. The colors have changed from crow black and slush gray to sun-warmed pastels. And a hungry man eats a Big Mac, rather than chowing down on a tree. That has to be an improvement, though vegans may disagree.
First up is a pilot, René González (Édgar Ramírez), who defects, or appears to defect, by flying solo to the United States. His true function, once he’s in Florida, is to report to his superiors, in Havana, on the activities of anti-Castro groups. The trouble is that, regardless of his motives, he has to leave behind his wife, Olga Salanueva (Penélope Cruz), and their young daughter, and the film never quite faces up to the paramount question: In what universe would any sentient creature voluntarily abandon Penélope Cruz? Assayas gives her dorky spectacles and shapeless clothes, and shows her laboring in a tannery and mopping a hospital floor, all in a vain effort to quench the flame. Olga is easily the most fervid figure in the movie, and her reaction, when she’s finally told that René is not a traitor but a loyal (if secret) patriot, is an amazing coalescence of pride, exasperation, and weepy fatigue.
But wait. Suddenly, we switch from René’s adventures to those of Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), another component of the network. He embeds himself in the expatriate community by marrying Ana Margarita (Ana de Armas), whose beauty he admires almost as much as his own. Then, later on, we turn to a third man, Gerardo Hernandez (Gael García Bernal), who is sent to Miami to command operations. Oh, and there’s a semi-related subplot, in which a hapless youth is recruited in El Salvador and paid to plant bombs in Havana’s hotels, in a bid to curb the tourist revenue on which the Cuban economy relies.
So who’s the hero? Or, to put it another way, which of these agents would be the least boring to have dinner with? Assayas has often proved his skill with ensembles, in season-ripened movies like “Late August, Early September” (1999) and “Summer Hours” (2009), but the new work, alas, lacks a dramatic core. The story can’t keep still, shifting from year to year and place to place, and, whereas “Mr. Jones” appalls you into wanting to know more, “Wasp Network” is so temperate in its political approach that you start to forget what’s at stake. The fiercest speech comes from Castro (the real thing, in a TV interview, not an actor in a beard), who brands America “the biggest spy in the world.” Touché.
Read the original text at The New Yorker.