About 50 minutes into “Mr. Jones,” Agnieszka Holland’s new film about Joseph Stalin’s manmade famine that killed millions in Ukraine, there’s a 30-minute vision of hell as terrifying as that in any horror movie.
British journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton) has defied his Soviet handlers and smuggled himself into the Ukrainian countryside, the supposed breadbasket of Europe, in the dead of winter. He quickly realizes something is desperately wrong in this part of the Soviet empire: Starving people grab for scraps of an orange peel he discards on a train; a man trades Jones a heavy winter coat in subzero temperatures for a loaf of bread.
When he disembarks, he sees just why this famine is so severe. Stalin’s men are loading up all the grain on trucks and shipping it to Moscow. The Soviet miracle — the ability in the 1930s to rapidly stand up manufacturing in multiple sectors while the rest of the world struggled to get back on its feet during the Great Depression — has been built on the backs of these people. And those backs are breaking under the weight of Stalin’s supposedly Utopian society.