Suppose you set out with the best of intentions to make a romance set during the Soviet famine of 1932/3; specifically the Holodomor, the name for the Ukraine portion of this disaster, which killed millions. You plant the seed of the screenplay, water it with a solid cast, nourish it with stellar cinematography – you can see where this metaphor is going, can’t you?
Bitter Harvest is the title of director and co-writer George Mendeluk’s tale, “inspired by actual events” as the opening credits explain. We begin with a voiceover from aspiring artist Yuri (Max Irons), son of Yaroslav (Barry Pepper) and grandson of famed warrior Ivan (Terence Stamp).
“Waxing and waning,” is how Yuri describes his idyllic, rural childhood. “The eternal cycle of seed to plough, and reaping.” Unfortunately, his life is about to take a turn for the worse, and the dialogue doesn’t get any better either.
But in far-off Moscow, Communism and then Stalinism is tightening its grip on the newly formed Soviet Union.
The story of the Holodomor is an important one, but Bitter Harvest plasters over the dark history with all manner of movie shortcuts. Letters to Natalka from Yuri awkwardly explain the Soviet crackdown. Violins play whenever something sad happens. And every death or act of heroism demands slow-motion camerawork. (Heaven help anyone who acts heroically and dies as a result; this can take up to 10 minutes of screen time.)
Meanwhile, the mostly British cast proves a distraction, especially since a few of the minor players do seem to have authentic Ukraine accents, or at least they’re trying. (The film was shot in Ukraine as well as in the U.K.’s Pinewood Studios.) Stamp of course speaks in the pan-national tones of all gruff-voiced actors; if there’s a place called Gravelly-vakia he’s its ambassador.
Kudos to Mendeluk for trying to bring this important piece of history to a wide audience. Alas, the great film of the Holodomor is still waiting to be made.