BITTER HARVEST (2017) review
written by: Richard Bachynsky Hoover (screenplay) and George Mendeluk (story)
produced by: Stuart Baird, Chad Barager, Jaye Gazeley, Ian Ihnatowycz & George Mendeluk
directed by: George Mendeluk
rated: R (for violence and disturbing images)
runtime: 103 min.
U.S. release date: February 24, 2017 (limited)
With all the epic television series in recent years that have covered compelling moments in history – especially ones involving war, oppression and resistance – any theatrical feature better be firing on all cylinders to make an impact and potentially rise above material that’s aptly suited for episodic drama. What “Bitter Harvest” does best is inform and educate, bringing to light a period in history seldom covered on screen. Although that is very interesting, it unfortunately doesn’t make for very compelling cinema here. This is a film that has it’s heart in the right place, but a formulaic screenplay and two miscast leads really don’t do director George Mendeluk’s film any favors. While historical dramas always have the potential to reflect on what we can learn from the past and not repeat the horrors others have lived through, here is a film that reminds us of so many other films that have come before it.
Before I get into the film’s problems, I’ll give it credit for taking viewers like myself to school by emphasizing a certain period in Ukrainian history. “Bitter Harvest” introduced me to something called “Holomodor”, which means ‘death by starvation’, in this case, specifically the forced famine Joseph Stalin imposed upon those living throughout the Ukrainian countryside. Since I was unaware of this period of genocide, this thread in the storyline was quite intriguing, even if Mendeluk and screenwriter Richard Bachynsky Hoover provide us with a “Cliff Notes” version of the atrocity committed in 1932 by the Soviets for a year, which took the lives of roughly 10 million innocent people. It wasn’t until 2003 that the full horror of this Deliberate Policy was confirmed, after Russia signed a U.N. declaration.
So, there’s this overlooked tragedy in history being brought to light, but first “Bitter Harvest” is intent on established family honor and a love connection during the Bolshevik Revolution. We’re introduced to a young artist named Yuri (Max Irons, “The Giver”) who pals around with Mykola (Aneurin Barnard, soon to be seen in Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk”) and pines over his childhood sweetheart, Natalka (Samantha Barks, “Les Miserables”), while under the shadow of his father, Yaroslav (Barry Pepper) and grandfather, Ivan (Terrence Stamp), both of whom have a reputation for being valiant warriors. The issue is, although it’s a hoot to see Pepper don a Cossack lid and Stamp weird a shashka, every other character feels like a stock type you’d expect to find in a sweeping wartime romance, establishing an inauthentic tone to the movie.
The same can be said for the broadly-stroked antagonists found in “Bitter Harvest”, who come across as one-dimensional threats, essentially lessening their fear factor. The recent death of Lenin, leaves Stalin (a heavy-handed Gary Oliver) room to rise up and implement his extreme prejudice across the land. He has the Soviet Kommissar Sergei (Tamer Hassan, who might as well be twirling his mustache) enforce a swift and cruel treatment of the villagers – shooting a priest and running over Natalka’s mother – as he runs them off their land. During this time, the newlywed star-crossed lovers are separated, with Natalka staying home to care for her mother, while Yuri goes off to join Mykola and friends in Kiev, hoping to join a protest against the Soviets.
Before Yuri can be reunited with his love, he is forced to retaliate at the injustices he constantly sees, which finds him imprisoned in Siberia during a harsh winter. He manages to escape prison by convincing a guard (Richard Brake, who played The Night King on “Game of Thrones”) he would paint his portrait. At the same time, Natalka is fending off a rape from Sergei, who winds up hallucinating a trippy vision of his disapproving mother, which turns out to be a forced characterization that feels completely out of left field. Yuri is eventually reunited with Natalka, but not after more bloodshed and famine, motivating the couple to leave their country altogether and make their way to North America so others can hear of the story of their people.
The biggest problem “Bitter Harvest” builds as the movie unfolds and that is the realization that the actors who play the two leads, Yuri and Natalka, are simply bland and unconvincing. Both Irons and Barks never really shake off this aura of “acting” they radiate throughout the movie. It’s not that their awful actors, it’s just that they’re not very compelling to follow and considering they are to be the heart of the story, that’s kind of a deal breaker.
That being said, “Bitter Harvest” has good intentions as its made by filmmakers passionate about the subject matter and the details involved in this period and time. Director Mendeluk, along with actor-turned-screenwriter Bachynsky Hoover and producer Ian Ihnatowycz, all have Ukranian heritage and had family who fled the Ukraine. Most of the movie was actually filmed in modern-day Ukraine (as well as Pinewood Studios), lending a degree of authenticity, presenting beautiful geography amid a bleak environment. Mendeluk, who helmed 1986’s “Meatballs III” (say what?), has spent most of his career filming television shows – from “Miami Vice” to “Top Cops” to a number of Canadian TV movies – so it’s no surprise when the consistent vibe “Bitter Harvest” emanates is one of an ambitious TV mini-series. Maybe that’s the approach this material should’ve taken.
It’s hard not to notice how “Bitter Harvest” is like another one of those stories where a war abruptly interrupts a blossoming romance. If that sounds familiar, it is – think Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” where that fateful day in December 1941 interrupts a love triangle. Unless we really get to know who Yuri and Natalka are as individuals and the actors portraying them are absorbing, it’s kind of hard to feel pulled in by their plight. Ultimately, reading the film’s synopsis – better yet, reading about Holomodor – proves to be more interesting than sitting down and watching “Bitter Harvest”. That’s too bad considering what transpired is now regarded as one of the greatest crimes against humanity.