In between the two World Wars, the then nascent Soviet Union, in a barbarous act of mismanaged nation building, starved north of seven million Ukrainians to death, all the while violently appropriating the land and the crops from the ‘bread basket of Europe.’
Unquestionably, The Holocaust has received the lion’s share of cinema treatments when it comes to mid-20th century genocide, but to the best of my knowledge, Bitter Harvest is the first English language take on Holodomar. For such a monumentally horrific moment in history, the story of that brutal period of famine deserves a better telling than this clumsy, cluttered affair.
Hollywood (and the many Canadian film efforts that are often caught in its gravitational orbit) is very good at taking national crises and lathering on a mushy romance for the sake of butts in seats. From Pearl Harbor to Passchendaele, handsome, misguided attempts at turning history lessons into callow entertainment abound. (The weird irony is that with few large exceptions – Titanic – those butts rarely find those seats.)
Bitter Harvest is the latest casualty of this kind of folly. it’s a Canadian production with a predominantly British cast about a significant (and unimaginably horrific) moment in Ukrainian history. Director George Mendeluk, a 30-year veteran of directing for television, from episodes of Miami Vice to The Highlander: The Series), has spent the last decade almost exclusively making tele-movies. Here, it seems he cannot shake the more blunt – make sure the slowest customer ‘gets it’ – storytelling of the Lifetime genre.
The story here follows three generations of Cossack warriors turned farmers. Terence Stamp, sporting impressive horsemanship and a curved blade, is otherwise wasted as the iron for blood patriarch Ivan. His grandson, Yuri (Max Irons) is a budding artist, on track to leave the village and pursue a non-agrarian career in Kiev.
If Ivan may grumble about the softness of the current generation, who are more interested in cities, politics and working in these new-fangled factories, his son, Yaroslav (Barry Pepper in a little more than cameo appearance, sporting an impressive haircut and glorious moustache) is willing and please to let his own son put down the blade (or scythe) and cultivate a more artistic and romantic nature.
Yuri, for years, has been courting the beautiful Natalka (Samantha Banks), his longtime friend and paramour who together frolicked in the swaying wheat fields and forest lakes together as children. Cue the imitation Hobbiton score from Lord of the Rings, while the grain sways during those peaceful Days of Heaven as the villagers dance in their finest clothing. The bucolic era of “hard work and simple pleasures,” is rudely interrupted when mustache-twirling Soviet Commissar villain Sergei shows up with his goons (er…soldiers) and murders the local priests and peasantry.
Yuri and his friends rush off to the big city to make a difference only to have their dreams shattered by Stalin’s Soviet agenda. Everything that you think will happen, happens in the most workmanlike fashion, plot developments that could be savoured, or at least used to hang mood and theme upon, are rushed through like a history teacher eager to get the kids out of his classroom so he can quietly enjoy his stale smoked meat sandwich and stale coffee alone at his desk. Any possiblity of grace or understanding are quashed by lazy familiarity.
Another scene involving Natalka’s personal moment of revolution, on the village homefront, has her dropping nightshade into Sergei’s bowl of borscht. The scene is executed in an offputtingly amateurish bit of editing, CGI and dolly-zooming that compromises whatever intentions might have existed on paper into abject silliness. (“MOTHER!”)
To add insult to injury, the film never mentions or addresses the assassination attempt again. Bitter Harvest is a film that is both overstuffed and empty. Unnecessary flashbacks, to remind the audience what is painfully obvious, compete with ominous (but superfluous) voice-over wherein Max Irons’ disembodied voice sounds distractingly like Jude Law.
The real shame here is that the film was shot by Douglas Milsome, who went from focus-puller on Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon, to 2nd Unit man on The Shining, to full cinematographer for Full Metal Jacket. To put things in perspective however, he also lensed the Kevin Costner Robin Hood, and whack-a-doodle Dungeons & Dragons (which featured Jeremy Irons, coincidentally, Max Irons’ dad).
Here, Milsom photographs some spectacular and multivariate locations, from golden fields in the mid-harvest, to urban palaces and prisons, to fog-laden forest battlefields. If only pure cinematography could have told the story, and expositional, overly didactic, decidedly unnecessary scenes with Josef Stalin and his aides in Moscow could have been left as stranded files on the editing bay harddrive. Downfall, this ain’t!
Despite being given an impressive feature film budget and scale, Bitter Harvest has the execution and tone of those ubiquitous Heritage Minute shorts that aired on Canadian television in the early 1990s. If you are a child of the 1970s or 1980s, you will remember these earnest, but ripe for parody, morsels of government feel-good cinema.
The irony is not lost that at one point in the film, Yuri scoffs at the Soviet art teacher-slash-bureaucrat commanding him to paint earnest propaganda and call it art. The Ukraine, currently in the middle of fresh 21st century hardships with Russia, certainly deserves better; albeit the title here, at least, is quite apt.