In the early 1930s, Joseph Stalin starved Ukrainians under Soviet control, killing millions in the genocide that would become known as the Holodomor. Trying to tell this important story on film, with its moving political, emotional, violent parts is no easy task. It becomes especially trickier when you want to inform this dark chapter in history through the lens of two young lovers, throwing in that old zero-to-hero trope with a tale of passion and hope.
Director George Mendeluk undertakes this quixotic job with sincerity and hope in Bitter Harvest, but can’t find the weight to ground what is a pedestrian film telling a tragic and vital story. It makes a single village representative of a great whole, features a young hero who tends towards art more than violence, tells of unrequited love, and desires a grand revolution on the scale of Les Mis. And it never quite works.
Too many pieces mess up this tale that cinematically and thematically is familiar to so many others before without ever establishing its own foothold. Yuri (Max Irons), grandson of a warrior, paints and yearns for the beautiful Natalka (Samantha Barks) when Soviets invade his village, kill his father, and demand they all submit to Stalin. He dreams of the bohemian metropolis Kiev, ventures forth, and finds out that political and artistic idealism don’t exist. At least not at the moment. There is murder and famine all around, and those he knows are either fighting against propaganda or succumbing to it.
The people in Yuri’s world all share the same doomed fate, and soon he realizes he would have been better off wielding a weapon instead of a brush. He makes his way back to his beloved, and at this point, many boxes have already been checked in this war-torn romance, and we all know what will happen next.
Perhaps the merciless Soviet leader tasked with enforcing fealty in this village will met his demise. Perhaps a devoted family man will sacrifice himself for the greater good. Perhaps we will see Stalin being evil and grinning maniacally. Throw in some executions, pursuits, and a preface all that with some innocent, lilting fun, and we’ve our easily packaged story that comes at just over 100 minutes.
Bitter Harvest is adequately serviceable, and less dull if you rarely see movies. It’s a story that means something to those making it, but can’t figure out how to convey its due gravity.