From the director of ‘Meatballs III’ and a movie about a sniper who specifically targets hookers (‘Stone Cold Dead’) comes a historical romance about the tragic forced famine that claimed millions of lives in the Ukraine during the 1930s. You might have noticed the wild inconsistencies between the first and second half of that sentence. Therein lies the problem.
The Holodomor is certainly a subject worthy of a powerful period drama. Sadly, this just isn’t it. ‘Bitter Harvest’ is a quickie and a cheapie, featuring actors far too pretty and voluptuous to be starving and a few slumming Hollywood character actors in almost unspeakable wigs. It’s the sort of movie that should be a personal passion project determined to educate and break hearts. Instead, it feels like the work of a lifetime hack desperate to get an Oscar by any means. On the plus side, it’s impossible that will ever happen and almost as unlikely that anyone will even see this colossal clusterfuck exploiting a mass tragedy.
Max Irons stars as Yuri, a young Ukrainian boy who was raised in an idealized rural life. His father (Barry Pepper, who seems to personally challenge himself to wear the most ridiculous fake facial hair with every role and finds possibly his most insane lip wig here) raised him to be a soft artist type. Even though his grandfather (Terence Stamp) didn’t care for the approach, he loved the boy too. Yuri also fell madly in love with a local girl named Natalka (Samantha Barks), who eventually returned his affections. Everything seemed set up for Yuri to have one hell of a life until the Communists took over the country and demanded that Ukrainian farmers give all their produce to Mother Russia. Yuri was determined to be a painter, so he fled to the city where even his art was spoiled by the rotten Commies’ insistence on only producing social realism. As time goes on, things get dire at home and Yuri even finds himself locked up for his subversive ways. So sad. So tragic. Thank god this will be a syrupy redemptive bit of nonsense by the end, right?
‘Bitter Harvest’ has precisely one good thing going for it. The cinematography is by Douglas Milsome (‘Full Metal Jacket’), so the pictures are all very effectively lit and framed with a sense of wistful loss and dreary tragedy. That’s it. Everything else in the movie is one misstep after another. The plot reduces a mass tragedy down to a family story, which is fair enough given the obvious budget restraints of the movie and the necessity to keep things to a feature length running time. However, that also feels like a manipulative reduction of the events the film is supposed to honor and a misrepresentation of Holodomor. It would be forgivable if the central characters were memorable or at least believable, but everyone who appears on screen is a bore and/or a two-dimensional symbol for this tiresome story (including Stalin, who appears in a few scenes to scream loudly and rub his hands together like a anime villain).
As the running time wears on, director George Mendeluk gets even more tasteless in his manipulation of viewers sympathies. Things feel increasingly less factual and the movies teeters between outright exploitation and fantasy fairy tale, neither of which is appropriate for the material. ‘Bitter Harvest’ is a heavily fictionalized bastardization of history that is deeply boring and difficult to invest in emotionally or intellectually, or even pay attention to passively. It’s no shock that Mendeluk’s last big theatrical feature was ‘Meatballs III’ since this historical epic is executed with about as much subtlety and good taste as that titty and fart joke sequel.
The only thing that kept me entertained was trying to figure out how many days Terence Stamp actually spent on set, since he’s exclusively shown in close-ups and is otherwise poorly body-doubled (especially whenever riding a horse). My guess would be that he was only there for a day or two despite being a main character. Oddly enough, that’s about how much time it feels like passes while sitting in the theater trudging through this mess. Don’t bother giving it any attention. The filmmakers themselves barely seem to have cared about ‘Bitter Harvest’. Why should you?