Between 1932 and 1933 an estimated seven to ten million people died in the Ukraine as a result of the Holodomor (death by starvation). This man-made famine was used by Soviet authorities to suppress the Ukrainian population who were unable to flee across the country’s closed borders. The full, horrific extent of the Holodomor only emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Set during this period, Bitter Harvest tells the story of Yuri (Max Irons) and Natalka (Samantha Barks). Childhood sweethearts, their life in the Ukraine appears idyllic. Lavishly shot in rich colours, existence here has a vital, timeless feel to it. Village rituals come, seasons pass, and Yuri – the grandson of a great warrior – dreams of traveling to the city to become an artist. The arrival of Bolshevik troops heralds a change in village life, but Yuri still leaves for Kiev. Far from his family and loved ones, he finds himself questioning what he sees, thanks to a stranger who tells him that an artist has to “let the world know the truth.” Invariably Yuri finds himself in trouble with the murderous Soviet authorities. Meanwhile, Natalka, left in the rural community, witnesses the famine first hand and has to face the advances of cruel local Red Army commander Sergi (Tamer Hassan). Will Yuri ever see Natalka again?
As a dramatic love story Bitter Harvest fulfills its basic generic purpose, although (spoiler alert) there is little doubt that the lovers will be reunited. The relationship between the couple – established in the opening scenes – is presented by the narrator as an immense love. And yet beyond simple declarations there’s little sense of what underpins their relationship. The tribulations the couple face are suitably grim, but events proceed rapidly and subplots never have time to develop with the depth demanded. Thus Yuri joins forces with the anti-Bolshevik resistance for a battle but the entire sequence is far too short and leaves the viewer with more questions than answers, as does a strange food-poisoning/acid sequence.
Perhaps the most important lesson the twentieth century can teach is that evil is banal; across the globe, ordinary people have engaged in violence, cruelty, and genocide. But in Bitter Harvest evil is reduced to cinematic caricature. Like so many on-screen villains – whether Communists, Nazis, or gangsters – Sergi’s cruelty is apparently boundless as he delivers dialogue such as “There is no God! No evil! No sin!”, before shooting a priest who has hidden a religious relic. Later in the film, he sadistically demands, in his deep resonate voice, that Natalka wash and dry his feet with her hair. Likewise, a brief discussion on famine cuts to a scene of Stalin (Gary Oliver) enjoying an opulent feast. These, and other, sequences are heavy-handed, a clichéd villainous malevolence that ultimately creates a film that emphasises overly familiar action rather than history.
The problem Bitter Harvest faces is that the Holodomor deserves to be fully explored in narrative film but it becomes almost impossible to explain, much less show, such horrors in what is primarily a melodramatic love story. Despite moments of beautiful cinematography (Douglas Milsome) and a handful of brief spectacular scenes the film never becomes epic. Torn between exploring the horrors of Stalin’s rule and Yuri and Natalka’s relationship, the film opts for an overtly melodramatic tale of love.