This review was originally published on News Cult in February 2017.

Starring: Max Irons, Samantha Barks, Tamer Hassan, Barry Pepper, Terence Stamp

Director: George Mendeluk

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: R for War Violence and Disturbing Authoritarianism

Release Date: February 24, 2017 (Limited)

A film like Bitter Harvest reminds me of cinema’s power to uncover stories that had been lost to history. Unfortunately, it does not also remind me of cinema’s power to transform my whole day into something magical.

The setting is rural Ukraine against the backdrop of the 1932-33 Soviet famine. Young artist Yuri (Max Irons) struggles against starvation to build a better life for himself and his childhood sweetheart Natalka (Samantha Barks). Circumstances conspire to drive them apart – as is typical in times of love and war – as he heads to the city and joins the resistance movement. It is a long road back to their reunion, but any happy ending will necessarily be tempered by the devastation that has wrecked their community. For such an infrequently told story, the beats of storytelling are all too familiar.
Bitter Harvest finds inspiration from earlier tales of war but also struggles to commit to anything. There is a hint at something involving a combatant taking pity on an artistic prisoner in the vein of The Pianist, but that goes nowhere. The final act is an Odyssey-style trek home, but the sub-2-hour running time prevents the epic feel that such an approach would require. There is one scene involving poison and revenge with an entertainingly hallucinatory style, but it proves to be an aberration in terms of positive takeaways.

The forced starvation of Ukrainians is up there among the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, but I doubt that it is very well-known outside Ukraine. So I appreciate that Bitter Harvest is being released so that English-speaking audiences will be exposed to it, but I wish that the actual film dramatized the story better than the epilogue does.

Bitter Harvest is Recommended If You Like: European History

Grade: 2 out of 5 Soviet Memories