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Despite the fact that it was a genocide that claimed millions of lives, the Holodomor is not particularly well known. Bitter Harvest is not the film to bring attention to it. For all that its intentions may be noble, it botches them by framing history through a fictional romance.

Bitter Harvest, directed by George Mendeluk, stars Max Irons and Samantha Barks as Yuri and Natalka. Yuri is the archetypal sensitive leading man; when he’s a child, his grandfather (Terence Stamp) encourages him to pick up a saber and learn how to fight, but his father (Barry Pepper) protests that he’s different from them. And so, when he’s grown, he goes off to Kiev to study art. Unfortunately, this means leaving Natalka behind in the countryside, and their reuniting starts to seem less and less likely as Stalin rises to power. As if to make the point, the story occasionally jumps to Stalin’s doings in the Kremlin in sequences that, for some reason, all seem to have been put through a bad Instagram filter. This is somehow the least of the movie’s problems.
There’s nothing about Bitter Harvest that isn’t reminiscent of the videos that play in small historical museums. There’s the bad voiceover component (which makes it clear from the get-go how melodramatic everything that follows will be), there are extremely heavy-handed symbolic shots, almost every instance of violence is cut away from and depicted instead in a spray of blood over a tastefully placed item, there’s no dialogue that doesn’t clunk like a car that’s breaking down, etc., the list goes on. The cinematography alone escapes such reproach, though that’s hard to keep in mind as the events unfolding land so poorly and when the editing is so stilted. Still, the images we see manage to convey the kind of coldness suited to telling a story about the Holodomor, and frame the proceedings better than the love story does.

It’s ultimately the romance that cripples Bitter Harvest beyond saving. That history has to share space with both a coming of age story and a tale of star-crossed lovers means that none of the three get the treatment that they might deserve. The salient and interesting points that the movie has to make about Ukrainian history are passed over too quickly, Yuri’s disillusionment and transformation are unconvincing at best (Max Irons can’t convey much beyond bafflement, though that may have less to do with his acting and more to do with the material), and Yuri and Natalka barely spend five minutes of screentime together before being parted.
While there has to be some credit given for attempting to tell a story that isn’t usually given much light, this still isn’t the place to start to educate oneself on the Holodomor. There is a scene in which Terence Stamp, while riding a horse, jump-kicks another man off of his horse, but it’s not enough to justify putting yourself through this movie.

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Tintin enthusiast. NYC via the midwest.

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