For all the famous film adaptations his books have inspired, depictions of George Orwell himself on screen remain rare.
However, he does feature in new release Mr Jones, played by English actor Joseph Mawle, typing away – and smoking away – furiously while creating one of his best-known works. But Orwell isn’t the central character of this movie.
That role is taken by a lesser-known contemporary of Orwell’s, a Welsh journalist called Gareth Jones, the first reporter to reveal in the West details of the Ukrainian famine that killed millions of citizens in Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930s. It was as a response to Jones’ investigations, so the film claims, that Orwell wrote his allegorical classic Animal Farm.
The film is the work of Polish director Agnieszka Holland, whose most famous films include Golden Globe winner Europa, Europa, the Oscar-nominated In Darkness, and Washington Square as well as many episodes of hit US television shows such as The Wire, Treme and House of Cards.
It is a film which unashamedly celebrates the role of the journalist, Jones, and the writer, Orwell, in exposing and promoting the truth, in the face of totalitarianism, scepticism and cynicism – themes Holland knows will resonate with modern audiences.
As she appeared with my on my BBC radio show last week, she was thrilled when I pointed out to her the new statue of Orwell which looms now in the piazza in Broadcasting House, especially with its accompanying inscription, taken from a deleted preface of Animal Farm: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
“This is right,” she says, looking up at the giant sculpture. “If you have a society where fake news sells better than real news on the internet, then anything can happen,” she says. “This is the message of Orwell and it is the message of my film. But it is something I have come to realise more fully after I made the film. If you have a corrupted media, then the audience become indifferent to the news, they don’t care or trust it and this situation can lay the ground for fascism, racism and all the horrors we have seen before.”
Holland does know whereof she speaks. She has been imprisoned and, like several film makers, was exiled from communist Poland in the 1980s. Her films about the conflicted role her nation played in the Holocaust have made her something of a hero and villain in today’s Poland. “Half the country hates me and the other half loves me,“ she says, with a shrug. “We live in a divided society and it seems dialogue between two sides is no longer possible. But that doesn’t mean we should maintain silence.”
Holland’s latest, Mr Jones, stars James Norton, the actor tipped by many to be the next James Bond (“I don’t know anything, but he would be a very good choice,” reckons Holland). He plays the true-life Gareth Jones, an eager young Welsh journalist riding high having recently scooped an interview with Adolf Hitler aboard a flight to Frankfurt.
The story gives him the ear of former prime minister Lloyd George and the cabinet. He becomes a trusted advisor on international affairs, although the claims Hitler makes in Jones’ interview are ridiculed and the threats of war scoffed at.
Jones travels to Moscow, now thinking he can get an audience with Stalin. However he is met with obstructions and restrictions and is downhearted to see the way the press are controlled and allow themselves to be kept under tight surveillance, even though they are allowed to hold debauched parties in secret. He is particularly disappointed by the behaviour of New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, played with a typically lizardly leer by actor Peter Sarsgaard.
Jones manages to slip off on a forbidden journey into deepest, snow-covered Ukraine where he discovers bodies lying in the streets and peasants collapsed in hunger. These are the film’s strongest sequences, a real horror story of neglect and devastation.
Jones, always on the run from soldiers, nearly succumbs to the cold and the famine himself.
Back in London and despite the initial impact of his story, he soon finds his reporting met with scepticism and denial. Many politicians, publishers and writers still want to believe in the idealism of the Soviet project. But a lunch with Eric Blair, yet to be better-known as Orwell, inspires Animal Farm, passages of which punctuate the film.
“You know it’s funny,” remarks Holland. “Orwell’s book has been out of fashion since the fall of communism, really. But there’s a strange statistic that, in America, from nowhere, it suddenly went to the top of the Amazon charts the week after the election of Trump. Dystopias can come into fashion very quickly, I think.”
There have been remarkably few films on Stalin’s starvation of the Ukraine, an event which later came to be called the Holodomor. Possibly because there are remarkably few verifiable facts. No one is even sure how many died between 1932-1933. Figures go from 3.5 million to 10 million, a very large number about which to be so vague, it seems to me.
“This is why it is important to make this film,” says Holland. “History can change very quickly now that there is no truth in the media. People deny, deny, deny and they don’t look at the complexities of what happened.
“The Nazis, they were very precise: we know the numbers, the names, the places of everyone who dies because they wrote everything down.
“The Russians did not, so the dead remain nameless, voiceless, unmarked. The fact that nobody talked about it for decades also means we cannot be sure of what happened.
“My film is one view on a person who was caught up as a witness, so it becomes a film about journalism and heroism.”
For Holland, Gareth Jones’ heroism lay in his determination to tell the truth, to stick to the duty of his job. It is no easier today, she says, citing journalist deaths in Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
“Probably it is even harder to combat fake news nowadays,” says Holland. “I see the language of the internet, of government and officials turning to a fascistic language, one that can forbid a certain view of history.
“We had this in Poland – for a while, maybe 10 years, we could be a mature society and look at our role in the Holocaust for example and admit our past faults, as well as our past acts of heroism. But very quickly, the politics can change very brutally and now it is illegal to say certain things. This is to deny the complexity of human beings, and of that grey area where you find the truth.”
Holland’s films have always been about duality and the grey areas. In Darkness operated in the sewers, where Polish resistance fighters sheltered Jews and led them to escape, even one who was an anti-Semite but who knew the difference between good and evil. In Europa, Europa, a Jewish boy hides his identity (and his circumcised penis) to pretend to be Nazi and survive the war.
“I believed that art, cinema, literature, theatre could find a different language and could discuss the complexity. I always believed that, and I am not going to change my ideal on that. But I see now that whatever you say in films is always going to be political. You get easily shoved into a bubble and labelled as a certain kind of film maker, so that they can ignore your films, or even ban them for what they say, or for how people will interpret what they say. There is such fear now, in everybody.”
I wonder if the large Polish community in Britain provide a sure fire audience for her? Polish movies have done well at the British box office in recent years, giving Polish film makers and distributors a boost. “It’s true that this is a new audience here,” she says. “Polish people living in the UK, (ex-pats, you call them?) maybe miss something about their home so the social media and marketing from Poland reaches out to them and they sometimes respond very well and many of them go to the cinema to support their films. It’s an audience of nearly a million, so of course the films can do well.
“I’m not sure my films are the type they want to see, but some are very loyal to me, so the UK is important for me, even though this film, Mr Jones, is about a Welsh man, and is in English, written by an American scriptwriter, set in Ukraine and London – although we shot the London scenes in Scotland.”
Holland, 71, is a diminutive figure with big, round glasses and bowl cut. She talks fast and has a deadpan delivery, bursting with ideas and quick wit. She reminds me slightly of Edna Mode, from The Incredibles, barking orders and looking up. She has, she admits, a voracious appetite for working practically non-stop. Perhaps it’s a response to her early career when she was denied work in Poland and had to channel her creativity into writing scripts for Andrej Wadja (Danton is one of hers) and collaborating with the great Kristof Kieslowski on the classic Three Colours trilogy.
She lives in Paris, Poland and Los Angeles and is particularly busy in US television where she has a reputation as the go-to director to establish the early look and rhythms of what are hoped will become long-running series.
She has also just finished making a film called Charlatan, about a famous healer called Jan Mikolasek in 1950s totalitarian Czechoslovakia. It will debut at the upcoming Berlin Film Festival, a place she calls her natural home, having won prizes there previously. Mr Jones launched there last year.
“Charlatan is a Czech film, but a co-production with Slovak, Czech, Irish and Polish finance, so yes you can say it’s very European and I have of course a European sensibility although for me it is always about trying to translate the story into a universal language.
“And that can be about good and evil. I think good and bad fight inside one human and in one society or nation. I believe you have to create a situation where the one side, the good, the caring, let’s say the Christian side, that is loving, tolerant and empathetic side will grow.
“But you know evil is much easier and grows faster and it is much quicker to sow anger and division. I worry we here at the moment, in the wave of an evil. That is why the story of Gareth Jones, who looks evil in the eye, is fascinating and that of Jan Mikolasek, who lives his whole life on the fine line between good and evil, amid the stormy history of Czechoslovakia in the 20th century. The motif of faith-healing is also provocative and alluring to me – it is amazing what people can put their belief in.”
Holland is also about to start work on the first Polish-language Netflix series, which could prove a bold move in terms of her popularity. Will she be moving full-time to Poland to make it, and getting back to her Polish roots?
“I don’t know anymore what I am. Most of the time, I live in a hotel, so I have become a citizen of city hotels, which is a kind of parallel universe in the world. My friends and family tell me they never know where I am, which town I’m in. I miss out on a lot of social events just because they assume I won’t be there.”
Maybe it’ll be her turn next, then, to invite everyone round for a viewing party? If you’re looking for her in mid-February, try the Berlin Film Festival. Before that, you can see Mr Jones in UK cinemas from Friday.
This article appears in The New European.