Hot Take: Bitter Harvest? More like Bitter Borefest. It would be what happened if Lifetime started making movies for The History Channel.
Buried beneath the love story of Yuri and Natalka is a tale of the atrocities of 1930s Ukraine and the effects of Joseph Stalin’s genocidal policies on the region. There’s enough detail to realize Bitter Harvest recounts one of the darkest periods of history for the Ukrainian people, the Holodomor. The Holodomor was a man-made famine by the then Soviet Union that killed millions of Ukrainians. It was ordered by Stalin to pressure the Ukrainians to drop their independence movement. The film’s focus — the relationship of Yuri and Natalka — is rather uninteresting compared to the story of the famine and the subhuman treatment of the Ukrainians at the hands of the Soviets.
However, since the story is Yuri (Max Irons) and Natalka (Samantha Barks), it might be best to shed a little light on that storyline. The pair had been in love since their youth with Yuri constantly attempting to woo Natalka and Natalka concerned she is cursed to never be married. Eventually, Yuri wins Natalka’s full commitment and the two get married soon after Yuri’s father (Barry Pepper) is murdered in one of the many raids by the Soviets who were looking for the town’s icon — an important religious painting. Natalka’s mother suffers a terrible injury at the hands of the same Soviets which forces Natalka to stay behind while Yuri heads to Kiev to be an artist.
The progression of the story takes some twists and turns with almost none of them being interesting as Yuri’s friend rises to prominence as a political activist in support of the Communist party but also an advocate for the Ukraine. Eventually, the distraught friend facing imprisonment and maybe even death, decides to take his own life. During a night of drinking and remembrance, Yuri gets into a fight with Soviet officers and kills one in the struggle which lands him in prison. He resorts to drawing on walls to maintain his sanity as groups of prisoners are executed nightly. He eventually escapes to make his return to his beloved Natalka. Back home, Natalka and her family have a particularly rough time with the same officer who killed Yuri’s father and injured Natalka’s mother because, well, it is a movie after all.
If you read either of the last two paragraphs and found anything overly exciting, I apologize as that means I captured the tone of this film poorly. Director George Mendeluk brings a rather TV-ish feel to Bitter Harvest which makes sense since most of his career has been spent making TV movies. His most famous work — 1985’s Doin’ Time whose cast includes Muhammad Ali as himself and 1986’s Meatballs III: Summer Job which features Patrick Dempsey as the main character who is getting help from a dead porn star to lose his virginity in order for her to earn her way into heaven — are real doozies. The German-born Mendeluk has a healthy list of television credits and his style is representative of that as Bitter Harvest never quite feels big screen caliber.
The biggest problem though is how completely boring Bitter Harvest tends to be. The story is told in such a way that it’s hard to get overly excited about anything unfolding on screen. While Irons and Barks both deliver adequate performances, the film never delivers anything above the level of a TV drama. The story of the Holodomor deserves a better story and its victims a better memorial than this rather trivial and emotionally devoid tale. I would suspect someone else gives this story a go down the road and will likely have better luck than Bitter Harvest which only succeeds in boring its audience to tears rather than moving them.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- The Subject is Worthy
The Holodomor is worth a big screen retelling. However, the film never quite sheds light on the incident in a way that makes the viewer care as it settles on kitschy clichés of love and separation and trite plotline advancements through similar methods throughout the film. That doesn’t sound like much of a pro when you put it that way, does it?
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- Smells Like TV Spirit
There’s a marked difference between television movies and cinematic pieces. That gap has closed over the years but Bitter Harvest, in particular, feels like a throwback to television movies of the 80s and 90s but never quite the glossy (or gritty which this film could have benefitted) feel a big screen film usually has.
- An Identity Crisis
The biggest problem Bitter Harvest has (outside of its sleep-inducing level of boredom) is a lack of identity. It never quite captures the historical atrocity to reach epic status and the romance between Yuri and Natalka never sexy or steamy enough to be anything more than a tame love story with little excitement despite a story of uprising, resistance and war.