“Bitter Harvest” couldn’t be more timely. The love story, set against the backdrop of the brutal suppression and starvation of the Ukrainian people by Stalin’s Soviet Union in the ’30s, echoes today’s headlines regarding the tensions between Russia and Ukrainians who want to be free from Putin’s influence.
“Bitter Harvest” is meant to be a tribute to love conquering all, including the most unspeakable acts a human can inflict on another. But the film’s effect is blunted by director George Mendeluk’s far-from-subtle approach.
Yuri (Max Irons, “Woman in Gold”) and Natalka (Samantha Barks, “Les Miserables”) are two young Ukrainians in an idyllic village who have loved each other since childhood. But their lives are interrupted by the vicious crackdown. Yuri, who really wants to be an artist, moves to Kiev where he has friends who can get him a job at a factory. He thinks he can help his family from there and perhaps avoid the worst of what’s coming as Stalin tries to starve the farmers and peasants into submission.
Natalka plans to join him later as she has to stay behind to take care of her ailing mother, setting her up to see firsthand the violent takeover and forced collectivization of the countryside.
The handsomely mounted “Bitter Harvest,” actually partially shot in Ukraine, is at its best when illustrating Stalin’s creeping shadow on the land. At first, Yuri’s bohemian artist friends are loyal communists, but they too soon become victims of the terror. Terence Stamp as Yuri’s staunchly independent and anti-Soviet grandfather also lends the film some acting heft.
But the love-story aspect feels greeting-card cliché and the army commander (Tamer Hassan) who terrorizes Yuri and Natalka’s village seems straight from Russian-villain central casting.
That’s too bad, as this horrific episode in history that killed millions — dubbed the Holodomor (Ukrainian for “death by hunger”) — is not widely known. “Bitter Harvest” could have borne substantial fruit but instead just whets the appetite for something more substantial on the topic.
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