Telling the full story of Ukraine’s tortured history as a subservient state to Russia, then the U.S.S.R., and more recently Russia again would take a mini series. So “Bitter Harvest” zeroes in on the most infamous Evil Empire crime against Ukrainians.
It’s an historical drama set during Holodomor, the Stalin-made famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s. It was genocide, a crime against humanity.
Young Yuri (Max Irons) is a boy with an artistic bent growing up in a Ukrainian village between the World Wars. All he wants out of life is to draw or write, and to be with his childhood love, Natalka (Samantha Barks), and to leave his rural town for the big city of Kiev.
But Ukraine was and is “the breadbasket of Europe.” And Uncle Joe Stalin (Gary Oliver) has other plans. Collectivize, ship your grain, livestock, fruit and vegetables to Moscow, or starve.
A nervous adviser pleads that “this will mean the death of millions,” but Stalin is unmoved. “Who will know?”
Thus begins the Sovietization of the region. A ruthless regiment of the Red Army, led by the sadistic Commisar Sergei (Tamer Hassen) shows up, beats and bullies the large landowners whom everybody works for.
And Sergei’s Cossack grandfather (Terence Stamp) and father (Barry Pepper, in an elaborate Cossack haircut) take up arms.
“No one can ever take away your freedom,” Grandpa, a former general nicknamed “The Wold Boar,” intones. “Remember that.”
Yuri is an artsy disappointment to him. But as the slaughter to force compliance begins, the boy must choose between the artistic life and love he dreamed of and the reality of one of the worst genocides in history.
Writer-director George Mendeluk conjures up a pastoral idyll of harvest greens and golds, followed by the mayhem of mass murder and resistance. “Bitter Harvest” coasts along on a story arc so conventional — Natalka’s virtue threatened, Yuri’s decision to fight — that you’ll swear you’ve seen this before in dozens of Hollywood films set in Occupied Europe, or elsewhere.
And while Stamp always gives fair value and Hassen makes for a marvelous villain, young Irons (“The Woman in Gold”) never rises above bland, giving a colorless performance that rests on his good looks and his surname (he’s Jeremy’s son) and little else. There’s no spark, no heat or passion here.
It’s an important subject, and a timely one, given Russia’s designs on re-occupying Ukraine and a new U.S. president who doesn’t seem to mind that.
But “Bitter Harvest” never amounts to more than a colorful misfire, a picture with much of the pageant of the period, but little of the roiling passions that dominate politics in the Breadbasket of Europe, even today.
MPAA Rating: R for violence and disturbing images
Cast: Max Irons, Samatha Barks, Terence Stamp, Barry Pepper, Tamer Hassan
Credits:Directed by George Mendeluk, script by and George Menduluk, A Roadside Attractions release.
Running time: 1:43