Bitter Harvest centers on Stalin’s initiated famine that killed millions of Soviet Ukrainians while he was advancing his communist reign in this systematic form of starvation was known as the Holodomor. This is the backdrop for an epic melodrama where two childhood lovers Yuri (Max Irons) and Natalka (Samantha Barks) endure the Holodomor and oppressive Stalinist reign. They fight for survival, joining liberation forces, always guided by their lifelong connection.
We’re introduced to the sunny fields of the Ukraine – picturesque vistas, old world charm, and simple, kind, hard-working farmers, singing and playing in the fields of blooming sunflowers complete with slow motion wild horses galloping through the hillsides. Who would have thought that living under Tsarist rule would be so damn sweet?
Whether it’s their shimmering underwater kiss as children, or their goo-goo eyed exchange of smooches and saccharine sentiments as adults (while Yuri paints Natalka’s portrait in the woods no less), these two dough-eyed lovers have about as much character as an Anne Geddes portrait. There’s nothing wrong with some sumptuously-realized love in films, but when it begins to look like a medicinal infomercial, it’s going to detract even the most sympathetically childish viewer. Irons is a ham, and Barks is a pretty face; beyond that there’s not much else to say about our lovers. Sighting Terence Stamp and Barry Pepper inspired a glimmer of hope but Pepper’s time is cut too short and Stamp is sleepwalking, I feel like they agreed to be in this contingent on their characters dying.
The central historical thesis on which Bitter Harvest is inspired is rife with potential for dramatic exploration and narrative possibilities, and much to my disappointment it doesn’t take advantage of any of them, instead opting for the dramatically lazy realization and turgid, obvious stylistic tendencies.
Our protagonist recalls, “my Ukraine was the world where legends lived, and anything is possible.” This introductory construct to the awaiting devastation of Stalinist dictatorship is an unabashedly superficial preamble to the reign of mounted Bolshevik baddies that accompany the era of the Holodomor.
Bitter Harvest only succeeds in conveying the broadest of points with such instruction there isn’t room for a fiber of interpretation or insight. While simplicity is admired in certain facets of storytelling, this film is furnished with lazy heavy-handedness and wanton banalities – showing the angelic innocence of the Ukrainian villagers has enough glittering sentiment to make a Lifetime original look edgy by comparison.
The laughable introduction of Stalin is indicated by cutting to his imposing mustache as if viewers everywhere would discredit the historical placement and say “I’d recognize that mustache anywhere”. While discussing the implementation of the Holodomor, the film cuts to a pair of black and white horses dueling with each other. Symbolism perhaps?
When the Bolshevik’s swoop in for their reign of terror they’re lead by the cartoonishly evil Sergei Koltsov, a crudely xeroxed image from the “big book of villains.” It feels as if Bitter Harvest tried to embrace Ukrainian/Russian culture and culture pushed it away. If your main characters have about as much depth as a henchman from a Cold-War era Bond movie you’re doing something wrong.
If Bitter Harvest were a propaganda film, I could understand the one-dimensional conception. If the film’s faults were the result of falling into a particular sub-genre, it’s less a matter of creative culpability than mere preference. As far as I know there’s no niche audience for epic-but-low-budget, action-packed, period soapers. The closest likable type of movie evoked by Richard Mendeluk’s feature is recent propaganda/historical actioners coming from China’s reflowering film industry (perhaps the first time since the 1997 handover) with titles like The Founding of a Republic or Bodyguards and Assassins. Bitter Harvest has the artifice and tone of modern propaganda cinema (not the greatest attributes), but none of the heart or drive that makes these previously mentioned films stand out.
On the surface, Bitter Harvest seems pretty passionate about the history of the Ukraine, but the film would have us believe that the Holodomor was initiated immediately after the death of Lenin. However, the Communist revolutionary leader died in 1924, and the Holodomor was initiated in 1932. Laying tracks over accuracy is one thing, but the implication of Lenin’s passing was trumpeted by the film, rushing toward the wrong answer isn’t very reassuring.
The badge of “Based on a True Story” is more often than not a way for filmmakers to exploit history for the sake of telling a story (which is the nature of the medium), but there’s simply not enough room in Bitter Harvest to adequately serve either its hackneyed love story or the bigger scope of the Holodomor. I can swallow the notion of using the dramatically fertile territory of Stalinist oppression in pre-WWII climate as a jumping point for a “rock ’em’ sock ’em” action movie – it worked for The Dirty Dozen, both Inglorious Basterds and The Inglorious Bastards (1978), and of course Where Eagles Dare. It’s not an artistic obligation to share any deep insights (though it’s usually better to make an effort) regarding politics or war. I can also swallow using something such as the Holodomor as the backdrop for a love story; once again check the scorecard, Doctor Zhivago, Reds, even Titanic. So where does that place Bitter Harvest? Frankly, neither category because the film conveys so little dramatic purpose and with the production values of a period reenactment for a History Channel documentary, which would have been more informational than the whole of the film.
Bitter Harvest is apparently something of a passion project for first-time screenwriter Richard Bachynsky, who clawed his to make this picture credited as writer and producer. The potential for a film like this to succeed is diminished when no one is around to say “no” to the otherwise bad concepts that populate Bitter Harvest. It’s certainly crafted with the same driven confidence of someone who earnestly believes they are making a great film. Too bad they didn’t.