There have been more than a few bad movies about the Holocaust; perhaps we were long overdue for a bad movie about the Holodomor, the catastrophic forced famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s. In rides Bitter Harvest, a gooey Canadian-produced soap opera that tackles mass starvation and Stalinism with pretty faces and several spoonfuls of schmaltz. Even if it weren’t about an atrocity, this training-wheels Doctor Zhivago would still be lame: the tale of a country boy who goes off to Kiev to become a painter, gets washed out by the tyranny of cheery socialist realist art (which the movie ironically resembles), and eventually finds his way home to rescue his sweetheart and give a budget-conscious what for to some sneering Soviets. The one thing it has going for it is the competent cinematography of Douglas Milsome, a former associate of Stanley Kubrick (he shot Full Metal Jacket, and assisted John Alcott on other films) and Michael Cimino who has since gone on to lens some of the better-looking Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. Well, that and Terence Stamp in Cossack garb, declaring in his inimitable screw-you cadence, “Now Ukraine can be free.”
Max Irons stars as Yuri, a simple peasant raised by his father (Barry Pepper, with a thick Taras Bulba mustache and foot-long forelock) and grandfather (Stamp) in a rural idyll of embroidered tunics, folk instruments, and reasonable grain production that is turned upside down by the arrival of jack-booted, priest-killing Communists. Leaving behind his beloved Natalka (Samantha Barks), he goes off to join his friends in the big city as an art student. There begins a cornball odyssey that, among other things, finds our decidedly un-Slavic-looking hero escaping from prison and taking part in a hokey homage to the “La Marseillaise” scene from Casablanca. Periodically, Bitter Harvest cuts to Joseph Stalin (Gary Oliver), who bellows, “Damn those Ukrainians!” to his wormy advisors. Stalin was in real life a small man who spoke unremarkably in a Georgian accent, though it’s said that he had a very pleasant tenor singing voice. On screen, however, he is always depicted as a throaty bull of a man—here, as a down-market Ray Winstone. He isn’t even that big a part of Bitter Harvest, but imagine a sappy melodrama about an archetypal Jewish tailor in the Third Reich where the story is interrupted by occasional cuts to Hitler saying, “I’ll get those gosh-darned Jews!”
Directed by George Mendeluk, whose resume includes Lifetime movies, episodes of forgotten TV series, and Meatballs III: Summer Job (his last theatrical release), Bitter Harvest barely addresses the horrific aspects of the Holodomor; in another Stalinist irony, the starved millions are reduced to nothing more than a statistic that flashes before the end credits. The gray, emaciated bodies of the dead are little more than an easy indicator of hard times for these decidedly not-Slavic-looking Ukrainians, along with all those minor characters who are introduced in one scene only to be killed or disappeared in the next. But at least this cloying attempt to stir nationalist and diasporic pride is good for the occasional, inadvertent laugh. In one scene, Yuri is entrusted with the family heirlooms. “Your father’s dream,” he is told as he handed the most sacred of relics in the candlelight: a pamphlet about Canada.