Genocide has been happening for centuries. There have been many, many documented atrocities committed by men against their fellow man, most notably the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews. "Bitter Harvest" exposes the "Holodomor", one of the other horrific acts of extreme cruelty and barbarism when Joseph Stalin and his minions literally starved to death 7-10 million Ukrainians during the 1932-33.
This unspeakable tragedy unfolds through the love story of a young couple, Yuri (Max Irons) and Natalka (Samantha Barks), as they attempt to navigate the horrors surrounding them as the Russians take everything from them, including the lives of those most precious to them.
Yuri's father, Yaroslav (Barry Pepper) and his grandfather, Ivan (Terence Stamp), are great warriors who resist the efforts of Sergei (Tamer Hassan), the Bolshevik sent to their region to steal their food and possessions and maintain order. But Yuri is an artist who chooses to follow his friends to Kiev in search of a better life. Natalka must stay behind to tend to her mother who was severely injured by a Bolshevik.
But nowhere in the Ukraine is safe. People are starving everywhere and the Bolsheviks are tramping down the resistance at every turn. Angry and frustrated after one of his friends commits suicide, Yuri accidentally kills a soldier in a cafe and is imprisoned. His plan of returning to Natalka seems hopeless, until his art catches the eye of his jailer.
The Soviet government obscured the Holodomor, extermination by famine, until 1991 when it finally came to light. It was always denied by Stalin and is one of the worst travesties of the 20th century, and yet one of the least known.
Director George Mendeluk, who co-wrote the screenplay with Richard Bachynsky-Hoover, Canadians of Ukrainian descent who were eager to delve into this project to expose this unknown tragedy. It was filmed on location in the Ukraine with splendid cinematography by Douglas Milsome, featuring a marvelous score by Benjamin Wallfish, recently nominated for a Golden Globe for his work on "Hidden Figures".
Irons, the son of Jeremy Irons, and Barks are well cast. Despite the stilted dialogue, each does their best, and the plight of these two lovers is driven home by their resolute portrayals. Stamp is marvelous, as always --- playing the patriarch with verve till the end.
Hassan plays a mean villain. He looks and acts every bit the part of a monstrous overlord, happy to do his job. The one outstanding performance belongs to young Jack Hollington, who plays Lubko. He is darling --- and a terrific little actor. Watch for him in the future.
The biggest drawback to "Bitter Harvest" is the writing. This is an epic true story --- it deserves an outstanding script. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Also, Mendeluk's direction, at times, is a bit heavy-handed. We don't necessarily need to be led around by our noses to understand what is transpiring.
This is more than a tad disappointing. I, too, am of Ukrainian heritage, and I so wanted "Bitter Harvest" to be a grand, sweeping saga, exposing this indefensible, outrageous crime. Alas, it is not.
But "Bitter Harvest" does possess a charming, lovely beginning and an equally fitting ending. I love how Mendeluk chose to close out his film. Had the rest of "Bitter Harvest" been that favorable, it would be the version for which I had hoped.
Opinion: Very Mild See It Now!
Fifty-seven years ago, famed radio and TV journalist Edward R. Murrow hosted a television documentary called "Harvest of Shame" about the abuses of migratory workers in the U.S. It was a story that needed to be told in 1960.
A new film entitled "Bitter Harvest" is not a documentary. But it is also a story that needs to be told, although its subject matter occurred over 80 years ago. Based on actual events in 1932/1933, the film chronicles the genocide of millions of Ukrainians through mass starvation, a program orchestrated by Russian dictator Joseph Stalin.
While technically not a great movie --- it jumps from one scene to another without pausing to absorb the moment --- it is well acted, and features one of the best scores in recent memory. In all fairness, director George Mendeluk had an almost impossible task of telling the story of Stalin's reign of terror in only 103 minutes. In fact, the actor portraying Stalin appears momentarily in only a few scenes. So to provide a basis for these atrocities that in some ways exceed even the Holocaust, a good deal of time is spent establishing a love story.
The young paramours are Yuri (Max Irons, son of Jeremy) and Natalka (Samantha Barks, éponine from "Les Misérables", 2012 version). Yuri is smitten with Natalka as a youngster, and their love survives into young adulthood. But when Stalin's army of thugs, patrolling farms and land all over the Ukraine, imposes its martial law usurping the land and all of its harvests, Yuri and Natalka are separated as he ultimately joins his friends in Kiev while she stays behind to care for her family.
Both actors are credible in their mutual love for one another. Natalka, in particular, is fearless in her disdain for her tormentors, most notably Stalin's local Boshevik who plagues Yuri and Natalka's village. He is Sergei (Tamer Hassan), relentless in his dogged enforcement of Stalin's law.
Other notables in the cast include Barry Pepper as Yuri's father, Yaroslav, who imparts the wisdom of never letting anyone take away his freedom. Terence Stamp plays Yuri's grandfather, Ivan, who looks a bit out of place wielding a sword at Stamp's elderly age (78).
There are moments of poignancy, as when young Lubko (Jack Hollington), orphaned by the events of the time, meets Natalka for the first time. This should have been a sequence that lingers for longer than it does for the greatest emotional impact. And one clever visual effect, in particular, shows the young couple fleeing underwater as bullets striking the surface, seemingly lose their velocity.
While "Bitter Harvest" bears obvious similarities to the Holocaust that would follow in Europe, the movie features a different form of cruelty. Concentration camps and gas chambers were not yet evident. But these Ukrainians were figuratively imprisoned in their own homes, gradually succumbing to starvation because the Red Army stole all their grain.
The name given to this horrific tragedy in world history is the Holodomor, known as the Soviet famine of 1932-33. We learn that between seven and 10 million Ukrainians died, a shocking number that exceeds the six million Jews that were murdered by the Nazis.The filmmakers provide a couple of interesting footnotes about the Russian acknowledgement and ensuing memorial of the Holodomor, both of which were delayed for decades.
But how many of us ever knew about the Holodomor? While "Bitter Harvest" is not the most uplifting film you will see this year --- it is inherently depressing --- it is yet another testimonial of man's inhumanity to man, and like "Schindler's List", a reminder that such crimes should never be repeated.
Opinion: See It Now!