Editor’s Note: This movie review originally used language that cast unwarranted skepticism on the facts of the Holodomor, the Soviet-era man-made famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s. More than 3.5 million people died, according to scholars, with some estimates as high as 10 million. At least 10 countries have declared the Holodomor an act of genocide. In 2016, the White House called it “one of the most horrific man-made tragedies in modern history.” This version of the review has been updated.
The Holodomor — an early 1930s famine in which millions of people in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, died when their foodstuffs were confiscated by the central Soviet government under Joseph Stalin — could have made for a tale of great, stirring tragedy on the silver screen. “Bitter Harvest,” alas, is not that movie. Maudlin, heavy-handed and histrionic when a more subdued touch would have sufficed, the below-made-for-TV-caliber drama about the historical event is a cartoonish and unengaging telling of an undeniable tragedy.
Whether the Holodomor resulted from a policy of systemic genocide, as is the official position of Ukraine and many other governments, or was a criminal act that nevertheless fails to meet the legal definition of genocide, as others have characterized it, is a matter for U.N. diplomats and historians to argue about. In the view of “Bitter Harvest” filmmaker George Mendeluk, a TV director who cut his feature-filmmaking teeth on such classics as “Amber Alert: Terror on the Highway” and “12 Hours to Live,” the scenario is not just unambiguous, but black and white.
Stalin (Gary Oliver) is depicted as a villain straight out of a black-and-white serial from 100 years ago, with his evil henchman, the commissar Sergei (Tamer Hassan), portrayed as a brutish caricature of heartlessness. When the commissar and his Bolshevik enforcers descend upon a Ukrainian farming village, for instance, trampling on horseback over an innocent woman making her way with a loaf of bread, the camera cuts to an unsubtle and overly symbolic shot: the broken and blood-spattered loaf, lying by the side of the road.
Mendeluk never misses an opportunity to insult the intelligence of the audience, whether it’s by an early sequence of two horses — presumably representing Russia and Ukraine — rearing up in a slow-motion confrontation, or a close-up shot of a Ukrainian resistance fighter’s eyeglasses, lying smashed on the pavement.
The movie centers on Yuri (Max Irons), a young painter who becomes radicalized when his village is enslaved by Sergei, who forces Yuri’s neighbors into a program of what was known as agricultural “collectivization,” with the harvest of Ukrainian farmers collected and carted off to feed Russians. Any independent farmer who resisted such collectivization was labeled a “kulak” — an enemy of the Communist state — and sometimes killed.
Although there is a tepid love story between Yuri and his childhood sweetheart, Natalka (Samantha Barks), simmering in the background, the main narrative of “Bitter Harvest” is one of armed struggle by kulaks and their sympathizers. Too often, however, the action is characterized less by revolutionary steel than melodramatic mush. Natalka, for example, toys with the idea of prostitution to feed her family. And when a Ukrainian man kills himself in despair, a Soviet soldier offers this snarky toast, delivered with the same lack of subtlety that characterizes the rest of the script (by Richard Bachynsky Hoover): “To all Ukrainian nationals, may they continue to save us ammunition.”
There ought to be no lack of firepower in telling this shameful tale. Too often, however, “Bitter Harvest” is guilty of overkill.
R. At area theaters. Contains violence and disturbing images. 103 minutes.