Film Review: ‘Bitter Harvest’

'Bitter Harvest' Review: Heavy Subject Gets

A historical epic intended to draw attention to the Holodomor — or Soviet starvation of Ukraine in the 1930s — bogs down in failed romance.

TV spots for “Bitter Harvest” claim that the movie reveals “Russia’s darkest secret.” That’s a catchy pitch for a thoroughly over-baked and blatantly fictionalized 1930s-set costume drama arriving at a moment when anti-Russian sentiment has reached its highest point since the Cold War. The scandal in question is the Holodomor — which is not a secret at all, but rather a widely recognized atrocity through which millions of Ukrainians died of starvation as a direct consequence of Joseph Stalin’s policies.

Like last year’s Kirk Kerkorian-backed “The Promise,” which aimed to be the “Doctor Zhivago” or Armenian genocide epics, “Bitter Harvest” represents a form of ambitious generations-later vindication, for which artists of Ukrainian decent — writer-director George Mendeluk, co-writer Richard Bachynsky-Hoover and producer Ian Ihnatowycz — joined together to expose horrific crimes that went suppressed for so long. And while “Bitter Harvest” will undoubtedly serve to raise awareness, there can be no doubt that the events deserve a more compelling and responsible treatment than this.

The way such movies tell it, the tragedy of genocide — like that of the Titanic’s sinking — is that it tears couples apart. Never mind the countless casualties, these cynical big-screen retellings seem to say: It takes a standard-issue unrequited romance to make audiences care about disasters, whether natural or manmade. In this case, Mendeluk concocts a simple-minded love story between a peasant farm boy named Yuri (Max Irons) and his childhood sweetheart, Natalka (Samantha Barks). Yuri has been wild about Natalka since he first laid eyes on her — “before I grew up and learned that dragons were real and evil roamed the world.”

Clearly, disillusion awaits the young man, whom we first meet splashing about in clear streams and running through golden fields with Natalka and his pals. Then Stalin (who is portrayed by “Game of Thrones” extra Gary Oliver like one of the bushy-mustachioed dictators from the “Naked Gun” movies, bellowing, “Lenin was too lenient. Syphillis had softened his brain!”) decides to collectivize Ukraine, issuing a decree by which the state seizes control of the privately owned farms and redistributes the republic’s rich grain harvests to other parts of the Soviet Union.

Here there seems to be some disagreement among historians. Without lending any credence to the crackpot deniers, it’s far from clear that Stalin intended to starve the Ukrainians to death (others believe that poor implementation of bad policies were to blame), though Mendeluk and Bachynsky-Hoover’s screenplay imagines the worst — which doesn’t necessarily make them wrong, though it certainly feels reductive and one-dimensional on screen. Upset with reports of Ukrainian uprisings and resistance, Stalin orders that 90% of their crops be withheld, challenging, “Who in the world will know?” (As if to illustrate that boast, on a train to Kiev, Yuri meets a journalist who is arrested and beaten for trying to report the truth.)

No film can undo the harm of such horrors, though that isn’t necessarily the aim. Rather, movies like “Bitter Harvest” serve to demonstrate that victims cannot be silenced and that history will judge such monsters as the villains that they were. Unlike his Bolshevik-defying father (Barry Pepper) and grandfather (Terrence Stamp), sensitive young Yuri — who looks like he has never experienced so much as a blister in his life — believes he “can fight battles using music and words.” And though neither of his elders is long for this world, Yuri will use art to get the upper hand — as in the scene in which he plunges a broken paintbrush into the jugular of a Russian officer.

Frankly, “Bitter Harvest” seems more than a little confused about its own stance on nonviolence, treating Yuri as a peacenik who’s pushed too far. After a hasty marriage, he ships off to Kiev to study art, but learns a more important lesson when his teacher is thrown in the gulag for critiquing Yuri’s “too perfect,” propaganda-friendly style. Instead, he encourages his class to capture the world honestly — which, of course, is what the filmmakers believe they are doing with this manipulative melodrama.

Mendeluk, who has worked almost exclusively in television, directing episodes of “Miami Vice” and the “Lonesome Dove” series, embraces the larger canvas here. There are stunning visuals of figures walking beneath the blades of giant windmills and an uprising in which rebels set fire to a wooden church, as well as small Eisensteinian touches (a nod to Russian formalism, as when a soldier strikes Natalka’s mother and the camera cuts to the loaf of bread she was carrying, now lying broken and bloodied on the ground), while the orchestra conveys the sweeping intention of his vision. And yet, he seems incapable of drawing nuance from his ensemble’s performances.

Pepper and Stamp’s characters are defined by their strange oseledets hairstyles (like a Cossack Mohawk, shaved on the sides and long on top) and even odder accents, while local Bolshevik tyrant Sergei (Hassan) is a cartoonish brute who slaps around priests and rapes the local women. As Yuri, Irons is meant to undergo a formidable transformation, first losing his innocence, before becoming a revolutionary action hero, but mostly he just looks bewildered, a handsome face overwhelmed by what’s happening around him — which would be fair, considering how difficult resistance would have been. But “Bitter Harvest” seems to care less about his fate or that of the countless countrymen starving around him than whether he ultimately gets the girl, and because it never convincingly establishes the romance, audiences will give a collective shrug to the entire affair.

Film Review: 'Bitter Harvest'

Reviewed at Wilshire Screening Room, Feb. 15, 2017. Running time: 103 MIN.

Production

(Canada) A Roadside Attractions release of an Andamar Entertainment presentation. Producer: George Mendeluk, Ian Ihnatowycz, Stuart Baird, CHad Barager, Jaye Gazeley. Executive producers: Dennis Davidson, Peter D. Graves, William J. Immerman. Co-producers: Camilla Storey, Tamer Hassan.

Crew

Director: George Mendeluk. Screenplay: Ricahard Bachynsky-Hoover, Mendeluk; story, Bachynsky-Hoover. Camera (color): Doug Milsome. Editors: Stuart Baird, Lenka Svab. Music: Benjamin Wallfisch.

With

Max Irons, Samantha Barks, Barry Pepper, Tamer Hassan, Aneurin Barnard, Alex Pecherytsia, Ostap Stupka, Tom Austen, William Beck, Lucy Brown, Jack Hollington, Gary Oliver, Terrence Stamp. (English dialogue)

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  1. Chuck T says:

    Mr. Debruge you are an insult to the film industry. I suppose you would given the same review of other classic historical films such as Dr. Zchivago. It is an atrocity which was even worse than the Germans destroying the Jewish population of Europe. And hidden from public view until the downfall of Russia. The very least you have no soul.

  2. Kendall says:

    The last thing we need is a simplistic and naive view of a film based on the writer’s Wikipedia-depth knowledge of history. This film is well-crafted and moving, capturing, through the prism of two lovers, the millions of human tragedies encompassed by Joseph Stalin’s genocidal reign of terror against the Ukrainians and, by extension, people all acrioss Eastern Europe that fell under the control of the Soviet Union. It was the policy of Stalin to decapitate any possible opposition to his rule. He achieved this by eliminating anyone who by class, education, or occupation might mount some type of opposition. He did it in Poland by massacuring over 21,000 Polish officers in 1940, while attempting to pin it on the Nazis. He did it in the Baltic countries by killing or forcibly deporting over 1 million people to the frozen wastes of Siberia, to suffer and die. While this was happening, Hollywood made not a single film that showed Soviet atriocities. Once WWIi commenced, and Stalin became our “ally,” Hollywood continued to churn our dozens of anti-Nazi films, but not a single film that reflected the realities of what was happening to the people of Russia and Eastern Europe. This, together with the propaganda pieces penned by the likes of Walter Duaanty (NY Times, what else) kept the American people in ignorance. Indeed, FDR postively discouraged such films, and even promoted at least one piece of blatant propaganda–Mission to Moscow. Such was the influence communists in Hollywood had over what got produced. And the communist traitor, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo–the one frequently portrayed as a a victom if the blacklist–bragged that he blacklisted films with conservative or anti-Soviet mesaages. Trumbo was a certified member of the Moscow-financed Communist Party USA and did the bidding of Joseph Stalin. This while artists, composers, writers, and filmmakers were all under the thumb of the communist regime, their artistic freedom squelched. Oh, the irony, of Trumbo being made out to be a victim when he was the victimizer, and the Soviet Union exercised an iron grip over artistic expresison in the Soviet Union.

    “Bitter Harvest” is a long overdue effort to bring these little known facts to the attention of the American public and younger generations whose knowledge of this history is abysmal. Another is “Katyn, which dramatizes the tragedy of the 21,000 Polish officers methodically executed by Stalin’s henchmen, and the soon to be released “Ashes in the Snow,” based on Ruta Sepetys’s novel “Between Shades of Gray,” about the deportation of the Lithuanian people in 1941. Hopefuly, we will see more such honest films.

  3. Dej luch says:

    Kindly read your history…whatever has been made available by mother Russia, interview the surviving victims or relatives, Canadian government officials if possible and develop some sensitivity before you ever attempt to review a film that was finally bringing this horrific event to the screen & hopefully the public at large. You would be amazed how many know nothing of this. To dismiss the “simplistic love story” as unnecessary contrived, maudlin fodder is perplexing. This was not a documentary and you of all people should have recognized that. What tragic event leaves the social personal fabric of any society intact. In the end that is what matters most to humanity. Yet your focus is to mock characterizations, hair styles and anything else that affected your senses. Not that Yuri’s earlier sensitive nature Was so hardened as to kill his oppressor and live with this for the rest of his life. This is the reality of the injustices & horror inflicted upon people of all races. I wonder how any of us would have reacted in these inhuman conditions. Pray I never have to find out.

  4. Russ Surowy says:

    I enjoyed the movie and found it very moving/sad. To deflect the movie to the realm of ‘schlock’ is a
    total disservice and unworthy of the reviewer no matter what axe he may have to grind. The movies
    intention was to raise awareness to this lesser known human tragedy/crime. On this it succeeded brilliantly. If the reviewer was exorcised by the movie, it is only because he does not appreciate the
    total calamity that this barbarism (Holodomor) inflicted upon Ukraine for several generations. Besides,
    the filming was great; the acting was very good; the story was heart-felt. So what’s not to like?

    • tlsnyder42 says:

      Thank you for this review. Another person highly recommended this movie as well to me. I hate critics like Debruge who fall all over themselves praising the latest edgy or politically correct cinematic faire, but obviously hate it when a more traditional movie comes along to expose a great evil or to entertain a broad audience.

  5. Deborah Proskow says:

    Your critique lacks insight into Ukrainian poetry, story and legend. Please dig deeper…

  6. The critic is a manipulator and needs to do his homework better.

  7. Some guy says:

    Olga, the critic is clearly mocking this poorly made film’s sentiment that the real tragedy of the Holodormir is that it separated a couple. It does not do any of the things you claim it does. The critic is clearly lamenting the fact that a poor piece of cinema, while doing good at raising basic awareness of the event, is still a poor piece of cinema and that the event in question demands something better than melodramatic schlock.

    It’s clear you have a personal attachment to this event, as do I. But that doesn’t make up for the fact that this movie looks like crap and is a true disservice to those who suffered through the event in question. Your passion for the subject has colored your vision on this film, and anything less than glowing praise for a movie that has spent nearly 3 years on the shelf due to its lack of quality would not suffice. Variety reviews films, and Peter went out of his way to be sensitive about this subject while still doing his job. Good job.

    • tlsnyder42 says:

      No, Peter’s usually bad. I’ve got two recommendations for this movie, one from someone I know well, and the trailer looks really good and professional, so I think I will give the movie a chance. Besides, look at all the other schlock that is out every year but gets a pass.

  8. lilya smith says:

    I agree with those below, the Holodomor was a tragedy for millions of people. My mother & her family luckily survived it & she was a Russian living in Southern Russia! Of course this does not follow the common narrative that the famine was anti-Ukrainian but I expect it will take more than a movie to explore the real truth of those tragic events

  9. Anna Zaderej says:

    After reading your review you need to re-review this movie. Comparing the “bloodthirst ” that Stalin had for the Ukrainian people was unimaginable! Yet, you downplayed it all. I was totally appalled at your lack of thorough historical knowledge of probably one of the worst genocides in history! Yet your negative, flowery rhetoric, downplayed the enormity of this story. I give you a “thumbs down”. You need to be replaced!

  10. VERA THOMSON says:

    This movie is unbelievably sad but it based on real life events in Ukrainias history. The ogliarchs and the russians dont want the story told. Why…..because it portrays the Russians in a poor light. But it must be told. Future generations of the survivors of the Holadomor are still suffering the emotional consequences of this inhumane act of MURDER. as did the jews in the Holocast that they suffered. THEY WERE VINDICATED AND SO MUST THE UKRAINIANS be VINDICATD. SO THAT HEALING WILL TAKE PLACE. AND IT IS NOT KNOWN BY EVERYONE. i Found it easier to relate to the horror than a documentary that decensitizes the emotions and the human suffering. Yes it is a simple love story but the scenery and the attrocities they suffered were not simple but a crime against humanity..

  11. JameSmace says:

    If the Holodomor is not a secret, why has Hollywood, the MSM, and Academia ignored this genocide of 10 million?

    And the “As if to illustrate…” and “incapable of nuance” comments are hilarious. The reviewer obviously does knot know of Gareth Jones, Duranty’s nemesis. The cover up of this genocide is a unique layer which this review failed to plumb.

  12. Olga Ruda says:

    Many Thanks throughthegreythought! There may not be the better answer to this arrogant offensive “critic” who even for a moment can not imagine and understand the pain of all the Ukrainian nation.
    What does he know about the Holodomor? What he learned about the history of the Ukrainian people in 1932-1933, when millions of dead bodies was lying on the road and government did not have time to bury them? When mothers were selected from all the children the weakest one and he was cooked and eaten to the rest survived? This is not a fairy tale, it is experienced by our grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers and fathers.
    And how dare you compare the premeditated murder of millions of Ukrainians with the Titanic? This so-called critic just a big cynic!
    10 million people was starved to. death. Poor policy? Not watching carefully enough? Really? “A catchy pitch for a thoroughly over-baked and blatantly fictionalized 1930s-set costume drama”?
    If Variety has critics like he I’m really fill sorry for this media.

  13. Actually, it’s extremely and undeniably clear that Stalin meant to starve the Ukrainians. Under actual investigation and scholarship, it’s extremely clear it’s what he meant to do.

    As one who has actually researched what happened, it is clear that Stalin did indeed decide to attack Ukraine in 3 ways. They attacked their Universities and centres of higher learning. They also attacked their religious rights, and communities. Finally, they directly attacked their physical well-being and starved them to death. It was deliberate, and it was not a mistake of poor policy. The fact that you bring that up shows your lack of investigation, and certainly indicates a bias. 7 – 10 million people starved. to. death. Poor policy? Not watching carefully enough? Really? Would you say that of the Holocaust? I didn’t think so. No wonder this was such a hidden tragedy for so long.

    I understand that your focus is film and not history, but if you’re going to speak publicly about an atrocity, you need to do your homework and watch your words. If you don’t know enough to speak to the history of what happened, leave your speculation to the fiction you review.

    • Lana says:

      I couldn’t have said it better myself! Precisely what went through my mind reading this review. Better research needs to be done here. People would tear him to shreds publicly if these comments were about the Holocost. But no, just another person stomping all over tragic Ukrainian history, nothing to see here, moving on….

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