This tepid television-movie-like tale focuses too narrowly on a pair of separated Ukrainian lovers while the Soviet Union’s 1930s invasion of their country is killing millions. Rating: 1.5 stars out of 4.
With Ukraine much in the news the past few years regarding Russia’s aggressive stance toward the Eastern European nation, the English-language period drama “Bitter Harvest” tries to shed historical light on the two countries’ bloody relationship.
But the film (with its largely British cast juggling various accents) proves a cheesy tale of separated lovers and one Ukrainian village’s hardships under the Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin. Though “Bitter Harvest” has an R rating, presumably for scenes of Bolshevik-inflicted atrocities and battle violence, it looks and feels like a harmless television movie from 30 years ago — perhaps because its director, George Mendeluk, has been churning out TV content (“Riddles of the Sphinx”) at a brisk clip since 1977.
“Bitter Harvest” begins with the sights and sounds of a simple farming village in a bubble of tradition. A wariness of outside aggressors haunts the saber-carrying grandfather (Terence Stamp) and father (Barry Pepper) of the story’s hero, Yuri (Max Irons).
Movie Review ★½
‘Bitter Harvest,’ with Terence Stamp, Barry Pepper, Max Irons, Samantha Barks, Tamer Hassan. Directed by George Mendeluk, from a screenplay by Mendeluk and Richard Bachynsky Hoover. 120 minutes. Rated R for violence. Several theaters.
It’s Yuri’s narrow troubles that take “Bitter Harvest” down a wrong road, distracting us from the larger picture of the Holodomor — the 1930s man-made famine suffered by millions of Ukrainians because of Soviet looting of food.
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Instead, we get a more familiar story partially involving Soviet repression of free expression. Yuri, an artist, leaves his village for a Kiev arts academy while his childhood sweetheart, Natalka (Samantha Barks), stays behind. Things go bad when he ends up in jail.
Meanwhile, Natalka is subjected to the cruelties of Soviet soldiers under command of the sadistic Sergei (Tamer Hassan).
Despite the stakes, Mendeluk can’t scare up any particular urgency, largely because everything is so contrived and inauthentic, from Yuri’s prison escape (requiring a guard’s stupidity) to Natalka dodging sexual assault (because of her assailant’s psychotic break).
A brief glimpse of piled corpses in a train boxcar offers a rare suggestion of the scale of the Holodomor. “Bitter Harvest” would have been better served by more of the same.