Unlike last year's Son of Saul, which told a specific story of the Holocaust in a gripping way — hand-held camera, over-the-shoulder close-up shots; each scene urgent, antic, dizzying in its horrors — Bitter Harvest, which opens Friday at Cinemark Valley View, tells a general story of the Holodomor (the genocide-by-starvation perpetrated upon the people of Ukraine by Joseph Stalin) in a discursive, listless way. The film dulls the impact of the atrocities by conspiring to depict the broadest story possible.
The Holomodor is of course much less famous than the Holocaust, though it resulted in the deaths of as many (if not more) people. The genocide wasn't fully revealed until the fall of the Soviet Union. The film relies on exposition, in voice-over and in dialogue, to explain the history. The characters and their various plots and subplots scan like incidental dramatizations to supplement the facts as opposed to the other way around, where the historical record is background material for a specific narrative. Bitter Harvest's narrative, such as it is, looks like this:
Yuri (Max Irons) is an artist in a Ukrainian village. In more ways than one, it resembles the Shire of Tolkien's Middle Earth. Shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution and a brief period of Ukrainian independence, the village is subjected to Stalin's aggressive economic agenda, which includes drastically increased grain production through farm collectivization. Yuri marries his childhood sweetheart, Natalka (Samantha Barks) and scampers off to Kiev to make money for the family — Natalka wants to stay behind to take care of her mother, a desire she conveys to Yuri literally at the train station, as the train is pulling away. In Kiev, anti-Ukrainian sentiment grows, and Yuri is imprisoned after a barroom skirmish. Back at the village, conditions worsen for Natalka and the farmers under the thumb of a brutal Commissar.
Perhaps because director George Mendeluk has worked extensively, in fact almost exclusively, on TV movies, the film feels very much like something cobbled together for a primetime network crowd, maybe even something sponsored by a Ukrainian history organization for the History Channel. Why, for instance, is Joseph Stalin himself a character? What possible function, other than bad imitation, do his three brief scenes serve in the story?
Not to come down too harshly, but the personal village conflicts are the stuff of daytime soaps, the special effects are two-bit, and the script suffers from not a few first-draft continuity issues. Two climactic battle sequences between Ukrainian insurgents and Soviet forces end abruptly for reasons one presumes were external to the script. There probably weren't enough dollars or days to film them in their entirety.
The cast is by and large earnest, if working with rough material. It's led by the London-born Max Irons as Yuri. His career has been doomed ever since he hitched his wagon to the 2011 shit stain Red Riding Hood. You'll recognize the faces of Barry Pepper and Terrence Stamp as Yuri's father and grandfather, respectively. They're responsible for the most visually interesting elements in the film: goofy traditional haircuts.
From a story perspective, Bitter Harvest's basic flaw is a lack of logical character development. This is an outgrowth of the earlier problem, that characters don't seem to be autonomous people. Instead, they merely represent ideas. Yuri's best friend Mykola (Aneurin Barnard) is the best example. In an early scene, he's an eager lad who wants to move from the village to the big city, to answer the siren call of manufacturing. When Yuri arrives in Kiev some time later, Mykola has transformed. He is now a Stalin apologist, singing the party tune. The next time we see him, he's leading the Ukrainian Communist party. And the next time we see him is the last. He is being hunted by Soviets and writes a letter to Yuri, apologizing for his betrayal — not only because he failed to see Stalin's lies but because he always loved Natalka. What? This was hinted at obliquely once or twice before but never developed. It's perhaps the most aggressively abbreviated character arc in recent memory.
All that said, consider Bitter Harvest a jagged baseline from which other Ukrainian narratives on film may emerge.