MOVIE: BITTER HARVEST
STARRING: MAX IRONS; SAMANTHA BARKS; BARRY PEPPER; TERENCE STAMP
DIRECTED BY: GEORGE MENDELUK
AMovieGuy.com's RATING: 1 STAR (Out of 4)
At one point in Bitter Harvest, wise Ukrainian Grandpa, played by Terence Stamp, gives possibly the worst prayer I have ever heard. Now I am not the religious type, but he states “In the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit. Let us pray. We must save ourselves or die.” End of prayer. It's a bad sign when even the prayers in this movie are crappy. Telling the story of the Holodomor, Joseph Stalin's death-by-starvation program that killed millions of Ukrainians in the 1930's, director George Mendeluk also tries to tell the tragedy through a love story. He fails at both.
Max Irons (The Host) stars as Yuri, a young Ukrainian boy who lives in a small village with his valiant father Yaroslav (Barry Pepper- much more on him later), his mother Olena (Lucy Brown), and his saber wielding grandfather Ivan (Stamp). They teach young Yuri about the importance of freedom, with hopes that he will continue the family tradition of taking care of the land. He falls in love with Natalka (Samantha Barks) and has other ideas of taking his love away to Kiev and becoming a great painter.
These romantic dreams are dashed, with Stalin in power, his armies take over villages, claiming there is no shortage of food, but leaving little to eat for anyone not a part of the Soviet regime. When Yuri's father is killed it forces him to separate from his love, to pursue his dream to help support what is left of his family and his village. When simplified, it could be an interesting drama, in the same way last years Anthropoid succeeded at a little known story during WWII, instead we get a drama that is sloppy in every facet of filmmaking.
It starts with director George Mendeluk (Meatballs III: Summer Job), who seems to think the screenplay from Richard Bachynsky Hoover needed to include every bit of info on the Holodomor that one could fit into a movie. Bitter Harvest unfolds like reading the entire Wikipedia entry, yet speeds through any of the moments where we might actually care about the characters. It is also one of the worst editing jobs I have seen in a film, where scenes are cut off at inappropriate moments, and bits of info are left forgotten. Several things about this film are unintentionally laughable, including a scene where Terrance Stamp's character is shot off his horse, bleeding from his stomach, and then it's just forgotten. Nothing ever comes of it.
And speaking of laughable, the best (and possibly worst) part of Bitter Harvest is the hair & mustache combo that actor Barry Pepper sports in this film. Its a strange mixture of a walrus and Bill Murray's nasty comb over in Kingpin. It's so ridiculously great, you will wish that his character was the true focus of the story. It's certainly much cooler to look at, than the dower, gloomy imagery from Mendeluk and his DP Douglas Milsome. War battle scenes look like lazy Civil War reenactment productions and the village looks like it was shot on the back lot of the Sharknado studio.
Bitter Harvest is a movie and story that means well. The Holodomor is a fascinating topic, and one that could work, were the story told with a more focused point of view. Only this movie is not. The direction is in too much of a hurry to focus on the things that matter. Instead we are left with a bitter taste in our mouth. Watch it for Barry Pepper. When he leaves, turn it off.
Written by: Leo Brady