Bitter Harvest

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday February 24, 2017

Max Irons stars in 'Bitter Harvest'
Max Irons stars in 'Bitter Harvest'  (Source:Roadside Attractions)

"Bitter Harvest" is the work of screenwriter Richard Bachynsky Hoover and director George Mendeluk. Intended to dramatize the plight of Ukrainians murdered by the Soviets under Stalin in 1932 and 1933 by means of a manufactured famine -- the Russians needed Ukraine's farmlands and minerals, but has less need for its people -- the film has a noble purpose. Where it collapses, unfortunately, is in its formulaic and too-often inept execution.

The film's narrative structure is a study in bluntness. A fairy tale beginning depicts Ukraine as a country of peace and prosperity, where happy children run through meadows and swim in ponds of clean, clear water. Two of those happy children -- Yuri and Natalka -- fall in love from the time they are barely more than tots. Years pass, the Czar is murdered, Lenin rises to power, and the Bolsheviks sweep across the land, and our two young lovers grow to youthful maturity. But in an increasingly uncertain and punitive world, will they have a chance to establish a family of their own?

Yuri (Max Irons) is the grandson of a fearsome, famous warrior, but his own temperament runs more toward the artistic; his friends encourage him to leave the village and come with them to Kiev, where he can study at the academy. Natalka (Samantha Barks) is less willing to leave home and family behind, especially when a ritual -- pagan in its accouterments, secretive in its mood, attended by the ball eligible young women and overseen by a female elder -- seems to indicate that her romantic prospects are doomed.

Shrugging off old superstitions, Yuri and Natalka make love, in a nature setting, a tryst that's as romantic as it is gorgeously filmed (as so many early scenes are) by cinematographer Douglas Milsome. It's only later, after Yuri's father is murdered and Natalka's mother is injured by Bolsheviks that Natalka reveals to Yuri that she's pregnant with their child. By then, they are separated; Yuri is in Kiev, studying at the academy; the village is suffering to an ever greater degree under the boot of the brutal occupying Soviets. Yuri's friends are convinced that the future under Communism will be bright, but that delusion soon goes the way of all such fantasies. (In contemporary America, we have similar hallucinations regarding the current occupant of the Oval Office magically "becoming presidential.")

As Stalin takes the reigns of power that future only grows dimmer for Ukraine, and the tactics of the Soviet occupiers more extreme. In the city, anyone can be denounced, arrested, and executed as an "enemy of the people" for any reason, or none at all; in the country, attractive young women like Natalka are in danger of being abused by uniformed barbarians like the local Commandant, a man who relies on the sorts of lies and manipulations that any strongman likes to make use of. "I am a compassionate man," he tells his victims, as he sets out to force them to submit to his will; "The Soviet system is just." Fake news, evidently, is not a modern invention.

The essence of drama is to confront heroes with hurdles and dangers, and "Bitter Harvest" does just that -- so much so, in fact, that the move starts to feel like a pulp fiction adventure. Jail, daring escapes, executions, swift, unlikely alliances... it's like the screenwriter couldn't decide which tropes to choose, so he tried to fold them all in. Action displaces art here, and there's not much subtlety; at one point, Yuri experiences an "angel and devil" moment, with a child pleading for him to conduct himself in a moral manner with regard to a captured Soviet soldier and an angry countrywoman demanding, "Kill him!" That's the level at which the film functions, with the drama of inner conflict externalized at every turn and amped up into life or death conflict.

To be fair, of course, the situation is extreme, but the film seems to make a point of reaching for the gratuitous with metronomic regularity. Even a scene in which a captive seeks revenge on a tormentor by feeding him poisoned mushrooms veers toward ill-fitting extravagance when the mushrooms provoke a psychedelic episode that conjures up some meager psychological demons. If handled with less flash and more skill, this material could have yielded genuine insight into what makes a man into a sadist and a brute, but the opportunity is skipped over.

All this makes the movie seem inconsequential. In normal times, it might be; but this is a chapter from the annals of human horrors that has not been given its cinematic due before now, and the reality behind the film is worth learning about and contemplating. Moreover, these are not normal times. The film begins and ends with the tolling of a village bell used to warn the peaceful inhabitants of danger. We should be listening to that bell here in the Western world of the 21st century, and taking it seriously. For the unwary, the arrogant, and the feckless, after all, what is past -- as they say -- is prologue.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.