The world of Bitter Harvest is a dark, moody, and rare perspective of a piece of Communist history; however, it is also a film stuck between character, plot, and history, never establishing a firm grasp on any one story element. Director George Mendeluk brings the film together in stunning and stylized visuals, however, the story is one of loose ends and shaky foundations, turning a devastating time in Ukrainian history into a distracting love story thwarted by cartoonish villainy.
Bitter Harvest is set in 1930s Ukraine in a small farming village. When Josef Stalin takes power over the Soviet Union and pushes his Communist policies into the Kremlin, small villages populated by Cossacks, like our protagonist Yuri (Max Irons, The Host), are hit the hardest. Grain farmers in the Ukraine are gradually forced to surrender their crops to the state in what eventually became known as the Holodomor, or “death by starvation.” Yuri, fueled by a rich family history of rebellion, fights to keep himself, his family, and his lover Natalka (Samantha Barks, Les Miserables) from this fateful death.
This film is not just about the preservation of life, but also that of history, religion, and culture. Yuri’s character is an artist and is a direct contrast to his father and uncle who fought in the Bolshevik revolution for their freedom. In topical fashion, this film takes the idea of the artist as an ideological and cultural rebel, using creativity and visuals to tell a story of opposition. Simultaneously, he is also helping his people to preserve their religious freedoms through the hiding of their Eastern Orthodox icons from the Soviet atheists. This also places art in the form of the symbolic and sacred. Yuri, then, is also a representation of a spiritual rebellion and an entire culture’s resistance. Mendeluk’s film does well in highlighting this unique perspective, offsetting two generations built on either physical or ideological strife and their combined roles within the fight against the Holodomor.
While this is a strong basis for the story, it fails to coincide smoothly with the rest of the historic plot and character arcs. While Yuri’s voice-over narration of the historic timeline is natural and informative, the actual focus on the Soviets in the film diverts from the power of Yuri’s character. The film frequently moves from the devastating scenes of starvation at the home front to the nefarious political dealings of Stalin (Gary Oliver) and his advisors. These scenes pepper the solemn and grave tone of the Ukrainian plot with a hokey and cartoonish look at the “character” of Stalin and his seemingly flippant political moves toward the widespread killing off of Cossack farming villages.
In the film’s middle plot, Yuri moves to Kiev to earn money for his family and pursue his art at the University. The filmmakers use this new setting to portray the brewing political factions in the cities and the many forms of rebellion occurring all over the country. This is also where the bulk of Yuri’s character development unfolds. Witnessing the fall of his countrymen and facing artistic dissent challenges his innocence and optimism for the first time as the warrior spirit of his Bolshevik father and grandfather (Terence Stamp) grows stronger within him. Yuri, as a character, transitioning from the lover and artist to the patriarch and warrior is quite harrowing and even relevant to current political and social ideologies. The rest of the film’s constant distractions make it easy to lose sight of Yuri’s story, though. The character piece is framed by a romance between Yuri and his childhood paramour Natalka. Although their love story is undeniably sweet and authentic, it doesn’t play to the film’s strengths. She is an impetus for his fight and a reminder of his values, but the film spends too much time building up their romance, likely to appease an outdated saccharin trope.
One of Mendeluk’s more welcome distractions are his visuals, bolstered by the production and costume design. Much of the corny Soviet scenes in Russia are subdued by Mendeluk’s brilliant rendering of the Cossack village, dress, and day-to-day. On top of a somber yet culturally rich atmosphere, the filmmaker strips Max Irons (Yuri) of his Hollywood prettiness (a trait he has taken advantage of so far in his career) and transforms him into a sincerely portrayed young 1930s farmer. Irons, in turn, complements the character’s youthful illumination and brightens the film’s dark subject matter.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
Although possessing the potential for a great character piece and historical drama, Bitter Harvest loses its way by trying to be too many things at once. Likely in an attempt to capture the feeling of the historic “epic”, the audience must endure a hero’s journey, a romance, the shortened long history of Soviet oppression, and another history of Ukrainian rebellion in less than two hours. The result is a mixed bag and a good start to what could have been.