Bitter Harvest  (15) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. George Mendeluk  ,Canada, 2017, 103 mins

Cast:  Max Irons, Samantha Barks, Terence Stamp

This is a strong story built around an event which is little known in the West, namely  “Holodomor,” or genocide by starvation, which Stalin inflicted on the people of the Ukraine in the early 30s – a cruelty which is still not acknowledged widely in Russia. 

Writer Richard Bachynsky Hoover, director George Mendeluk.and financier Ian Ihnatowycz, who backed the development of the film, are all Canadians, whose parents escaped from the Ukraine.  Like another Canadian film maker, Atom Egoyan, whose 2002 film “Ararat” told the story of the Turkish genocide wrought on Agoyan’s Armenian ancestors, this is a film which acknowledges and celebrates the film makers’ history and culture and the suppression of same and aspires to share it with the English speaking world.   Egoyan’s film, which is well worth seeing by the way, adopted an oblique and multi-faceted approach to his subject.  “Bitter Harvest” uses a more classic narrative approach, focussing on the story of two young lovers Yuri (Max Irons) and Natalka (Samantha Banks).

Yuri and Natalka’s peaceful life in their traditional village is disrupted by the arrival of the Bolshevik soldiers, led by the brutal Sergei (Tamer Hassan).  Under Stalin’s instructions the Bolsheviks systematically confiscate the villagers’ land and send the harvest to Russia, leaving the Ukrainians to starve. Yuri travels to Kiev and joins his friend Mykola (Aneurin Barnard) in the resistance movement, is arrested, tortured and eventually escapes to find his way back to his devastated village and Natalka.

The film does succeed in its intention of telling us something about both Ukrainian culture and the horror of the “Holodomor,” which is enlightening from a historical point of view.  It appears to be aspiring however to the epic quality of a story like “Doctor Zhivago” and that is indeed the sort of treatment the material cries out for.  Menduluk has even gone on record as saying his model for the role of Yuri was Omar Sharif.   But sadly it falls way short of that ambition.  The script fails to even approach the epic sweep and complexity of Boris Pasternak’s novel and Robert Bolt’s screenplay  – indeed some of the dialogue verges dangerously on the banal – while not only does Menduluk lack the flair and experience of David Lean;  he also lacks the budget to emulate his model.  For example, although much of the movie was filmed in the Ukraine itself, no real sense of the country leaps off the screen, while the resolution of the story is somewhat rushed and unsatisfying.

Irons as the film’s hero engages us up to a point but the predictability of the love story doesn’t allow either him or Banks, who showed what a good actress she is as Éponine in “Les Miserables”, much in the way of opportunity to stretch their acting muscles and find any depth to their characters.   Barnard makes an impression as Mykola and Terence Stamp, also making his mark in a somewhat underwritten role as Yuri’s warrior grandfather Ivan, shows he can still wield a sabre to good effect half a century after doing so in a different context in “Far From the Madding Crowd”.   Though when he finally gets to duel with the villainous Sergei, the director frustratingly fails to finish the scene satisfactorily and we never find out his fate.

The ambition and intention of this film deserves to be applauded.  It is however disappointing in its achievement.

Review by Carol Allen