Bitter Harvest

 

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A reminder that for the Ukraine tragedy is not only a feature of recent times.

 
Bitter Harvest
  

Last September when I reviewed Anthropoid, a film dealing with events leading up to the extermination of the inhabitants of the Czech village of Lidice, I commented on the fact that any film seeking to portray a great national tragedy is faced by the need to match up to it. The late Andrzej Wajda showed how that can be achieved when he made KatyƄ (2007), but it is all too easy to fall short. This is especially the case when a filmmaker hoping for a wider audience ignores the local language and elects to present such a work in English thereby risking a loss of authenticity in the portrayal. That is what happens in George Mendeluk's Bitter Harvest which, despite the decision to shoot in the actual locations, presents the story of the genocidal famine imposed by Stalin on the Ukraine in 1933 with a cast who speak English.

 

But that is not the worst of it. The facts portrayed are genuine but the story devised to illustrate them fails to convince. It is narrated by the central figure, Yuri (Max Irons), whose grandfather (Terence Stamp) is the revered village elder and he sets up a love story from the outset by telling us how even in childhood he was in love with a neighbour, Natalka, who as an adult is played by Samantha Barks. Yuri, a would-be artist, comes to Kiev to study but soon realises that, with Stalin coming to power, his homeland is being subjected to terrible pressures and to violence by the Bolsheviks as exemplified by the actions of Sergei (Tamer Hassan). This leads to Stalin denying food to the people and Yuri, following imprisonment from which he escapes, returns to the village to help Natalka and his grandfather.

 

Such a narrative even if undermined by the use of English might have served as an effective illustration of the widespread suffering of the Ukrainian people, but again and again individual incidents fail to ring true and the dialogue falls into banality. The cast can only do so much to help and stories of Terence Stamp paring down his dialogue suggest that the actor knew that he would do well to limit his use of the scripted words and to rely instead on facial expression. At least it can be said that, in contrast to Anthropoid, Bitter Harvest never feels exploitative, even if it does look more and more like a fictional action movie when it reaches its climax. Given that the subject matter, less widely known than it should be, deserves an airing, it is sad to find that Bitter Harvest keeps falling short. But there may be some, Ukrainians among them, who will overlook the weaknesses however serious and feel supportive of a film drawing the world's attention to this tragic history.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Max Irons, Samantha Barks, Barry Pepper, Tamer Hassan, Terence Stamp, Aneurin Barnard, Alex Peche Lastrytsia, Lucy Brown, Ostap Stupka, Tom Austen, William Beck, Jack Hollington, Gary Oliver.

 

Dir George Mendeluk, Pro George Mendeluk, Ian Ihnatowycz and Stuart Baird, Screenplay Richard Bachynsky-Hoover and George Mendeluk, from a story by Richard Bachynsky-Hoover, Ph Doug Milsome, Pro Des Volodymyr Radinsky, Martin Hitchbcock and Gerona Tavlinska, Ed Stuart Baird and Lenka Svab, Music Benjamin Wallfisch, Costumes Tatyana Fedotova, Galina Otenko and Aleksandra Stepina.

 

Andamar Entertainment Inc.-Arrow Films.
103 mins. Canada. 2017. Rel: 24 February 2017. Cert. 15