Historical films are very touch and go, especially if they are put in the wrong hands, either with a producer, writer or director. Beyond that, if they are surround the true story of a major atrocity, like the new movie Bitter Harvest, any wrong approach would feel like they were using these horrible events for an exploitative reason. The film doesn’t boast any huge stars, although Terence Stamp used to be a very recognizable actor, and the director’s biggest feature film was the second sequel to Ivan Reitman’s Canadian camp classic, Meatballs. How does this qualify George Mendeluk as the man to helm this project about a dark time in the Ukraine’s past? I really couldn’t tell you.
Taking place between World War I and II in the Ukraine, the film follows Yuri (Max Irons), the son and grandson of a line of fierce countryman warriors. Against his dreams of being an artist, Yuri must try to save his family and loved ones, including his hopeful future wife, from the iron fist of Joseph Stalin and the Russians. Bent on wiping out the population for not falling in line with his rule, Stalin creates a program called the Holodomor, a ruthless death by starvation plan that killed millions upon millions of Ukrainians. On top of that, a monstrous lead official (Tamer Hassan) has decided to make this particular village the example to others, killing everyone who disobeys him.
As the movie starts out, a stigma will set in with the quickly there and gone appearance of British Columbia-born actor Barry Pepper. While I have a soft spot for the man who turned in great performances in True Grit and Saving Private Ryan to name a few, his face will always bring to mind the terrible debacle of Battlefield Earth, a film that will forever stain his legacy. Unfortunately, besides Terence Stamp and the son of Jeremy Irons, Max, he is sorely missed as he exits the film quickly and every other actor in this film, including the villain played by Hassan, is very wooden. It makes it even worse that Bitter Harvest suffers from what I call the Valkyrie effect, being a movie that takes place in a foreign country but everyone speaks with an English accent. It’s really distracting.
I feel like Bitter Harvest’s biggest problem is in Mendeluk’s inability to find a real story focus and stick with it. The film starts off as a character focused period drama, which then leads to a romance between Yuri and his childhood love interest, Natalka. After that, when Yuri relocates to Kiev, the film has a slight revolutionary and political warrior theme before abandoning that entirely for an almost action film third act. The tone is always the same darkness but the mechanism of how we play this story out has so many jarring genre shifts that it’s hard to gauge where it’s all going. Bitter Harvest could have been an eye-opening look into a piece of history vehemently denied by Russia until 1991, which appears in the postscript of the film, probably the most interesting thing in the film. 2/5