Bitter Harvest
dir George Mendeluk
scr George Mendeluk, Richard Bachynsky Hoover
prd Stuart Baird, George Mendeluk, Chad Barager, Jaye Gazeley, Ian Ihnatowycz
with Max Irons, Samantha Barks, Terence Stamp, Barry Pepper, Tamer Hassan, Lucy Brown, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Austen, Jack Hollington, Gary Oliver, William Beck, Richard Brake
release US/UK 24.Feb.17
17/UK 1h43
Bitter Harvest
The weight of history: Irons and Barks

irons stamp pepper
R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
Bitter Harvest There's a strong story based on real events at the core of this film. But the filmmakers seem to be too close to it, unwilling to lighten up on the earnest worthiness. This is even evident in the movie's grim title, which plays into the epically tragic tone but fails to offer a way in for the audience. Which leaves the fine cast adrift as the soberness begins to feel cheesy.

In a small village in rural Ukraine just after the Great War, Yuri (Irons) has always been in love with neighbour Natalka (Barks). When the Bolsheviks overthrow the tzar, Yuri's father and grandfather (Pepper and Stamp) take arms to protect their freedom from the Soviet army, whose local unit is run by the brutal commandant Sergei (Hassan). After Yuri flees to Kyiv to study art near his activist friends (Barnard and Austen), Natalka must bear the brunt of the vicious famine Stalin (Oliver) inflicts on the country.

Director-cowriter Mendeluk is an experienced TV director who knows how to make the most of a limited budget. He cleverly creates a sense of the time and place with only a few sets, while punching the film's scale with sweeping music and large set-pieces. But there's also a nagging awkwardness that keeps it from ever feeling momentous. This is a vitally important series of events that are rarely talked about (up to 10 million people died when Stalin starved the Ukraine), and the historical significance makes it worth a look.

Although speaking English, at least the actors never put on silly accents. Irons and Barks are engaging leads, even if the characters are reduced to the essentials. Stamp adds more subtext to his war-hero granddad, and Hassan does a decent snarling villain. But there isn't much complexity to anyone in this story, and there's a feeling that Mendeluk has under-shot most scenes, leaving what might have been telling details undiscovered.

Clunky filmmaking aside, there's real power in the narrative, even as it's fictionalised to fit a standard movie structure. But it would have been much more effective as a gritty thriller without the attempt to stir big romantic emotions into every scene. Pushing both the plot and the themes only makes both feel rather thin and feeble, even though they're not. So while the movie never quite rises to the challenge, at least it opens the door to more stories about this horrific period in human history.

cert 12 themes, violence 13.Jan.17

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© 2017 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall