'Bitter Harvest': Film Review

Bitter Harvest Still 1-H 2016
Courtesy of Mark Tillie/Road Side Attractions
Hasn't Ukraine suffered enough?

Max Irons and Samantha Barks star in George Mendeluk's historical drama about Stalin's forced starvation of Ukraine in the 1930s.

Noble intentions are defeated by inept execution in George Mendeluk’s historical drama concerning the Holdomor, the forced famine imposed by Stalin on the Ukrainian people that resulted in the deaths of millions. Personalizing the events through the tale of a pair of star-crossed lovers, Bitter Harvest might be described as Dr. Zhivago-lite, although it really doesn’t deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as David Lean’s classic. This is the sort of bad film that can only come about as the result of misguided ambitions.

The filmmaker is of Ukrainian descent himself, so his passion for educating audiences about the genocidal events is understandable. On the other hand, his decades-long, extensive directorial credits are mostly in television, with his few theatrical films including the likes of 1986’s Meatballs III: Summer Job. So it’s not surprising that this mediocre effort has the feel of a glorified TV movie.

Max Irons plays the lead role of Yuri, a young man growing up in a Ukraine dominated by sun-dappled fields and happy, folk-dancing peasants. His idyllic youth, including a romance with childhood sweetheart Natalka (Samantha Barks), is rudely interrupted by the rise to power of Stalin (Gary Oliver, looking like a Madame Tussauds wax exhibit), who’s determined to collectivize the territory and seize their food. Or, as he not so delicately puts it, “Damn those Ukrainians!”

Yuri, an aspiring artist, manages to make his way his way to Kiev, where he studies at an art school whose instructor delivers pronouncements on the order of “With light you find the truth” (accompanied by a dramatic opening of the studio’s curtains) and “Reality is the enemy.” Yuri’s travails later include stabbing a Russian officer to death and escaping from prison. Meanwhile, Natalka, who has remained behind, has troubles of her own, since her village has been taken over by a maniacal Soviet commissar (Tamer Hassan, not exactly straining for subtlety) who shoots priests in the head and is about to rape Natalka until he succumbs to the poison she slipped into his borscht. But not before going on what looks like a really bad acid trip.

Mendeluk, who also co-scripted, simply doesn’t have the finesse to put this sort of material over. That the visuals are the film’s best element is not surprising considering that cinematographer Douglas Milsome worked with Stanley Kubrick on The Shining and Full Metal Jacket before becoming DP on such films as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

Bitter Harvest is also filled with laughable visual touches, such as when Stalin’s rant about suppressing Ukraine is followed by a shot of two horses fighting. And when Yuri and Natalka escape Russian soldiers’ gunshots by swimming underwater, you can bet that there'll be a reprise of an earlier moment in which they happily frolicked underwater together as children.

Irons and Barks are far more convincing portraying their characters in their younger, innocent days than when they become hardened by oppression. As Yuri’s father, Barry Pepper mainly provides evidence that a Cossack haircut is unflattering on anyone. Even the great Terence Stamp is made to look amateurish — something I wouldn’t have thought possible. But then again, few actors could convincingly deliver such portentous lines as “Now Ukraine can be free!”

The end credits provide details about the extent of the human devastation caused by the man-made famine that killed millions of Ukrainians. If the film had instead begun with those facts, audiences could have been spared the ensuing cheesy romantic melodrama, which only calls to mind better movies.

Production companies: Devil’s Harvest Production
Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Cast: Max Irons, Samantha Barks, Barry Pepper, Terence Stamp, Tamer Hassan
Director: George Mendeluk
Screenwriters: George Mendeluk, Richard Bachynsky-Hoover
Producers: Stuart Baird, Chad Barager, Jaye Gazeley, Ian Ihnatowycz, Roman Kindrachuk, George Mendeluk, Darko Skulsky
Executive producers: Richad Bachynsky-Hoover, Dennis Davidson, Peter D. Graves, Wiliam J. Immerman
Director of photography: Douglas Milsome
Production designer: Martin Hitchcock
Costume designers: Tatyana Fedotova, Galina Otenko, Aleksandra Stepina
Music: Benjamin Wallfisch
Editors: Stuart Baird, Lenka Svab
Casting: Daniel Hubbard, Gemma Sykes

Rated R, 103 minutes