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.