As far as films about tragic historical events go, most of the lot manage to elicit any number of reactions from the audience. From “Saving Private Ryan” to “Schindler’s List” to “Inglourious Basterds,” tough subject matter can make us scream, cry or laugh. However, the only reaction viewers of “Bitter Harvest” will have is one of regret, regret buying the ticket in the first place. “Bitter Harvest” is supposed to tell the story of romance within the frame of the genocidal impact of the Holodomor famine in 1933 Soviet Ukraine. However, the romance is over-the-top and the tragic famine is disregarded for obviously staged fight scenes and desperately dramatic scores. The outcome of “Bitter Harvest” is a cliché war movie bathed in melodrama and ending in disappointment.
“Bitter Harvest” follows Yuri (Max Irons, “Red Riding Hood”), a young artist who leaves his small Ukrainian village and his lover, Natalka (Samantha Barks, “Les Miserables”), to pursue art in the capital, Kiev. While Yuri is painting and attending boisterous Ukrainian nationalist rallies, Natalka and his family are being starved by Stalin and his army in one of the deadliest famines, later to become known as the Holodomor Famine. While Yuri gets into some trouble in an overly-bloodied, overly-expected bar fight, Natalka finds herself starving and reluctantly pursuing a career as a “lovely lady” a la Barks’s previous role in “Les Miserables.” The lovers exchange terribly romantic letters in the sappiest language since “The Notebook.” The letters are of course narrated, because why not, with letter writing voiceovers reminiscent of a bad Jane Austen adaptation.
The small Ukrainian village that Yuri and Natalka call home is a fetishized version of a life-size doll house for one of those Russian stacking dolls, filled with random festive dances and enough colorful embroidery to cover your grandmother’s doily collection. Like everything else in “Bitter Harvest,” the acting is melodramatic and over-dramatic. Irons and Barks turn every interaction into the end of a Shakespearean tragedy with an overdose of crying and face-touching. A lot of people die in this movie, but they all blend into one — bedridden, gasping for breath and reaching for the heavens almost-corpse adorned with makeup so gray and sad that it looks as if Tim Burton animated it.
Every choice in “Bitter Harvest” is either obvious, melodramatic or both. However, it is worth commending the film on its one success; the cinematography (Douglas Milsome, “Full Metal Jacket) is stunning. Filmed in the Ukrainian countryside, the beautiful opening shots give false hope to a rather mediocre film. While the bleak, gloomy footage from Kiev and the wintry tundra of Siberia add contrast to the painterly landscapes of Ukraine, it is again, an expectedly obvious choice.
“Bitter Harvest” is a substandard attempt at trying to depict an overlooked tragedy. The romance between Yuri and Natalka overshadows the tragedy of Holodomor. “Bitter Harvest” is so preoccupied with trying to capture the love story, that both the romance and the famine suffer. Sadly, the viewer will not learn anything of the Holodomor famine until the very end of the film, where before the credits roll the event is finally clarified with a few frames of text. The Holodomor famine is most certainly a story worth telling, but “Bitter Harvest” does not do near enough justice to the heartbreaking genocide.