In Bitter Harvest George Mendeluk explores a tragic period in Ukraine’s history by making it the background to a love story.
Sweet Cornby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Clearly a deeply felt film whose producers’ mission is to cast a spotlight on a hidden Ukrainian tragedy, Bitter Harvest has difficulty living up to the powerful tragic sweep of its subject.
It views Stalin’s genocidal policies of the 1930s towards Ukraine through the prism of the story of two lovers, Yuri (Max Irons, The Riot Club) and Natalka (Samantha Barks, Eponine in Les Misérables). They fall in love as children, and though they grow up in an idyllic Ukrainian village where picturesque peasants harvest great quantities of grain while singing traditional songs and dancing, they both sport impeccable English accents. Yuri’s pugnacious father is played by Canadian Barry Pepper (Monster Trucks) with a slight Bronx accent and Yuri’s grandfather, a revered renowned warrior, by veteran Terence Stamp, gritty and resplendent in his occasional appearances under a large Cossack hat.
As adults, Yuri and Natalka marry. Yuri leaves for Kiev to fulfil his ambition to become an artist, planning for Natalka to join him there. But meanwhile Stalin (Gary Oliver, Father Brown), luxuriating in Moscow amid the fruits of his dictatorship, orders increasingly severe appropriation of Ukraine’s harvest for Russia’s benefit, throwing the country’s formerly prosperous people into man-made famine (the 1932-1933 Holodomor) and forced collectivisation. His orders are enforced locally by a brutal commandant (Tamer Hassan, Game of Thrones).
In this era of political flux and mass starvation, society and even art become politicised. Yuri’s childhood friend (Aneurin Barnard, SS-GB), also now in Kiev, starts as a local communist party leader and becomes a demagogue. Yuri’s art college starts to direct the kind of paintings he is allowed to do. Violent upheavals and uprisings follow as Yuri, his family and Ukrainian resistance groups fight to try to change the course of events.
An epilogue gives the details of what it dubs ‘a great crime against humanity’ and dedicates the film to the millions of innocent victims. For that reason alone, the film deserves respect and is worth seeing as a history lesson and for the sake of its worthy aims. But they deserved better.
Bitter Harvest was made and privately financed by Canadians of Ukrainian descent, whose families lived through these events and emigrated – it’s obviously a labour of love. And, of course, Ukraine’s relationship with Russia is an ongoing contemporary issue. However, director George Mendeluk’s experience seems to be in directing for television and though the cast do their best, more rigorous attention to the cliched screenplay and direction combined with a bigger budget might have lifted Bitter Harvest for the big screen.
Bitter Harvest is released on 24 February in the UK.