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Review: In ‘Bitter Harvest’ grim history gets undercut

Tom Long
The Detroit News

“Bitter Harvest” is a history lesson wrapped in a melodrama. The history lesson is powerful and timely; the melodrama, unfortunately, is lame bunk.

It’s 1930s Ukraine, all peasant dances and wheat gathering and happy, proud farmers. Yuri (Max Irons) falls in love with Natalka (Samantha Barks) while they’re children, and that love endures into young adulthood, when they marry. Yuri is from proud peasant-warrior stock but dreams of becoming an artist and studying in Kiev.

Problem is, Stalin (Gary Oliver) has taken over the Soviet Union and wants the Ukraine’s farms to feed all of Russia, to the point where there isn’t enough food for the Ukrainians to feed themselves. Soviet troops run rampant over the countryside, killing at will, stealing religious icons and terrorizing innocent people.

Yuri decides to go to Kiev, where he can earn money to send to Natalka so she can eat. That plan doesn’t go so well and Yuri and Natalka end up separated as their country suffers through a genocidal famine that leaves millions dead.

Director George Mendeluk (“Meatballs III”!) and screenwriter Richard Bachynsky Hoover cannot be accused of being subtle. Every horror Yuri and Natalka could endure comes their way. Dead bodies litter the streets of Kiev, snarling Soviets smile condescendingly as children starve. Yuri goes to prison and faces a firing squad, then leads peasants armed with pitchforks into a bloody battle; Natalka faces rape, imprisonment, loses the child she is bearing. On and on it goes.

And it likely did, but everything here is surface, there is no nuance or real human connection. The story is so crowded with awfulness that none of it carries power. This is a shameful piece of history that deserves a far better film.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.


‘Bitter Harvest’


Rated R for violence and disturbing images

Running time: 103 minutes