Director George Mendeluk has stated that he wanted to make Bitter Harvest to bring wider attention to the Holodomor, the forced famine imposed by Joseph Stalin, which killed between 3 million and 7 million ethnic Ukrainians in the early 1930s. That’s certainly a subject worthy of a film, but the question remains whether it should be a tale of star-crossed lovers torn asunder by tragedy — or whether the director of Canadian cable TV dramas and Meatballs III: Summer Job was really the best choice to bring this history to a wider audience.
Mendeluk’s childhood sweethearts Yuri (Max Irons) and Natalka (Samantha Barks) have some historically bad timing, as these things go. Their romance first blooms during the Bolshevik Revolution and then grows into the fullness of love on the eve of Stalin’s rise to power. As is often the case with dewy-eyed young couples, Yuri and Natalka remain largely ignorant of the danger (the latter even ignoring pointed folkloric omens) until it’s too late, and they elect to marry. Lenin dies shortly thereafter, freeing Stalin to implement Soviet collectivization with extreme prejudice, the better to bring the Ukrainians brutally to heel.
Horror and tragedy follow swiftly, though Mendeluk mostly keeps the attention on local events. The Soviet kommissar in charge of lowering the boom is Sergei (Tamer Hassan), who is so cartoonishly evil he only lacks a handlebar mustache to twirl: He shoots priests, loots the church, hangs Yuri’s father (Barry Pepper, nearly unrecognizable under a Cossack haircut), forces the villagers off their land and runs down Natalka’s mother on horseback, splashing her freshly baked bread with blood. All that’s lacking is a villager standing over her fallen corpse, murmuring, “Truly, this is a bitter harvest.”
Yuri travels to Kiev to join his artist friends, thinking he’s found a healthy outlet for protest, only to discover they’ve become enthusiastic tools of the state. It’s at this point that Mendeluk decides to narrow the focus, spending much of the time on Yuri’s struggles. Imprisoned for stabbing a Soviet officer, he eventually escapes and Red Dawns it for a while with some local partisans. Meanwhile, Natalka attempts to fend off Sergei, who hallucinates visions of his disapproving mother while attempting rape. As attempts to humanize a character go, it’s … not entirely effective.
Bitter Harvest is at its best when Mendeluk (himself of Ukrainian descent) concentrates on the big picture, namely the wider effects of the genocide (a scene in which Yuri and a young boy stow away in a boxcar filled with corpses is particularly affecting), yet the most he can muster for the advancing effects of the famine itself is makeup-shaded cheekbones and stringy hair. The low-budget aesthetic probably was unavoidable, but a subject like the Holodomor demands something more than a TV-movie vibe, and pitched battle scenes featuring a couple dozen combatants or halting romantic interludes are obstacles that not even Terence Stamp (as Yuri’s grandfather) vengefully swinging a shashka can overcome.