Bitter Harvest could have been an important movie. Director, co-writer and producer George Mendeluk, of Ukrainian heritage himself, has said that the film is his effort to shine a bright light on the overlooked 1932-1933 Holodomor. This tragedy (which literally translated means “death by hunger”) refers to the brutal man-made famine in Soviet Ukraine that killed an estimated 2.5 to 7.5 million people. Josef Stalin deliberately suppressed information about this mass starvation and his other human rights abuses in the country, and as such, most of the world only became aware of the famine following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. As a subject area, this has been neglected by Western cinema.
The movie stars Max Irons as Yuri and Samantha Banks as love interest Natalka; both are supported by Tamer Hassan, Gary Oliver and Terence Stamp. The core narrative concerns the struggle of the lovers against the backdrop of the brutal Communist state repression in early 1930s Ukraine.
To an extent, Bitter Harvest does have a certain sincerity to it. Mendeluk shot the film on location and the opening act presents the country as an idyllic paradise, before it succumbed to the wrath of Stalin. Irons’s opening narration provides historical context and is admittedly cheesy, but can almost be excused because of the director’s goal to bring awareness to the Holodomor. Ukrainian traditional songs and folk rituals are touchingly added to embed the love story within the culture.
The fatal flaw of the movie is that the saccharine, romantic “love triumphs over all” plot hits every cliché, which, coupled with stilted dialogue, reduces the emotional and political impact of the picture and, at times, it feels less like an important truth-inspired epic and more like watching a forgettable romance flick. Exposition on political context from historical villains appears more similar to comic book baddies proclaiming their maniacal plans than a serious depiction of Stalin’s crimes against Ukraine. The performances from the supporting cast are unfocused, and Irons, for all his efforts, is left to portray an entirely bland protagonist.
The Holodomor is a subject that will hopefully be touched on by more filmmakers in the future. Whilst the passion for the culture and vision to bring the tragedy to light is admirable, there are clear stylistic flaws here that diminish Bitter Harvest‘s serious impact.
Bitter Harvest is released nationwide on 24th February 2017.
Watch the trailer for Bitter Harvest here: