Film Harry Mount
MR JONES (15) A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (12A)
When I’m made World King, I’ll appoint a Grand Editor. Their job will be to cut every book, film and play that’s too long.
My Grand Editor will start with Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman – which lasts three and a half hours and would have been better at half the length.
Mr Jones is only two hours long but it would have been much, much better if my Grand Editor had cut half an hour of excruciating, pointless shots of Russian snow and railway carriages.
I’m afraid director Agnieszka Holland comes from the School of Long, Lingering, Silent Scenes. She thinks a view of a man walking in the distance through snow gets better the longer he does it. I don’t agree.
It’s a pity, because Mr Jones tells a worthwhile story about a great, forgotten man. Gareth Jones (1905-35) was a brilliant Welsh journalist – skilfully played, albeit with a dodgy Welsh accent, by flavour-of-the month James Norton.
Jones was the first journalist to reveal, under his own name, the horrors of the Soviet famine of 1932-33. With Firsts from Aberystwyth and Cambridge under his belt, he embarked on a glittering career: serving as private secretary to David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham with a more accomplished Welsh accent); interviewing Hitler for the Western Mail in 1933.
In that same year, he made it to Ukraine for the scoop of his lifetime: the horrors of mass starvation concealed by the authorities.
Jones’s extraordinary revelations were published in the Manchester Guardian: ‘I walked along through villages and twelve collective farms. Everywhere was the cry, “There is no bread. We are dying.” ’
With Communism then fashionable, Jones wasn’t believed by many, chief among them Walter Duranty (convincingly creepy Peter Sarsgaard) of the New York Times. The historian Robert Conquest wasn’t believed either, 35 years later, when he wrote The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (1968). Thus Kingsley Amis’s suggestion for a new title for a later edition of Conquest’s book: I Told You So, You Fucking Fools.
The Kremlin denied Jones’s accusations, kicked him out of the Soviet Union and used all their Orwellian PR devices to edit the famine out of history. George Orwell (Joseph Mawle, a good lookalike) is seamlessly inserted into the film as an observer to show how the treatment of Jones was characteristic of Russian behaviour. It’s thought those
Russians might have had a hand in Jones’s death, aged only 29, in 1935, when he was murdered in Manchuria on a ‘round-the-world fact-finding tour’.
All in all, a worthy subject for a biopic – until Agnieszka Holland stepped in with her lingering camera.
Take the scene that Jones describes in a couple of lines in his dispatches – when fellow-passengers on a Ukraine train devour a crust of bread and a bit of orange peel Jones throws into a spittoon. Holland stretches this out for minute upon minute, with minimal dialogue. She thinks she’s cranking up the tension and pathos; she’s dialling up the boredom. A lost opportunity.
My Grand Editor will have no work to do when it comes to A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), the film version of Tennessee Williams’s play. It’s being rereleased in cinemas from 7th February.
The film is just over two hours long but there are no longueurs. Williams’s screenplay is tight and there’s none of that artificial feeling of a play transferred to the screen, even though the action barely shifts from the Kowalskis’ sweltering New Orleans apartment.
I’d forgotten how squeaky Marlon Brando’s voice can be but, oh my God, he’s ahead of his time. You can call it method acting or Stanislavski’s system. Whatever it is, it’s sublime, natural, convincing acting which leaves hammy predecessors such as Laurence Olivier flailing.
Vivien Leigh – Mrs Laurence Olivier at the time – was only 37 to Brando’s 26 during filming. And yet she seems an age older than him. She keeps her crêpe skin, caked in make-up, in the shadows until at the end of the film she’s forced into the light. Her delicate, fey movements and over-elegant clothes are a pathetic foil to muscular Brando bouncing around his apartment in a sweaty T-shirt.
A complete pleasure.