Though not nearly as infamous as the Holocaust engineered by the Nazis, the Holodomor—the mass starvation of the Ukrainian populace by Stalin’s regime in 1932-33, which might have killed as many as seven million people—was one of the most tragic events of the twentieth century. It certainly deserves better dramatic treatment than this stilted historical romance, which strives for a “Doctor Zhivago” vibe but falls miles short of David Lean’s epic.

The hero of the screenplay, co-written by director George Mendeluk with Richard Bachynsky-Hoover, is
Yuri (Max Irons), an artistically-inclined young man from peasant stock, who as a child fell in love, at first sight no less, with his playmate Natalka, who has since grown up into the beautiful Samantha Barks. (The bucolic quality of the rural society in which they live is painted in very thick strokes, with colorful costumes and communal celebrations of good harvests.) Though Yuri’s friend, the more politically-minded Mykola (Aneurin Barnard), encourages him to ask for Natalka’s hand, he is initially too shy to take the advice to heart.

Being an idealistic activist, Mykola will get politically involved when the Bolsheviks kill the czar, whose rule over Ukraine has been harsh, and the Soviet system emerges, eventually becoming head of the Ukrainian Communist Party in the belief that it can serve the cause of Ukrainian nationalism. (Oddly, there is little mention of the deprivations caused by World War I in all of this, or of the Russian Civil War that followed the Bolshevik Revolution.) But Yuri will witness the cruelty of that system when a brutal commissar, Sergei (Tamer Hassan), shows up and begins expropriating farmland in the name of “the people,” forcing families onto collectives and suppressing the church. His father Yaroslav (Barry Pepper) is killed resisting the Bolsheviks, and his warrior grandfather Ivan (Terence Stamp) barely survives.

Eventually Natalka and Yuri wed, but he goes off to the art academy in Kiev, where both Mykola and he will suffer disastrous setbacks, Mykola because Stalin (Gary Oliver) will crush the independence of the Ukrainian party and Yuri because the advent of “Soviet realism” in art will make his innovative mode of painting politically unacceptable. Eventually he will be imprisoned and nearly executed, but will escape by killing his villainous jailer Medved (Richard Brake) to return to Natalka, joining Ukrainian rebels fighting the Soviets in the process. Of course, we know that the resistance is doomed to fail, and ultimately flight across the border to still-free Poland becomes the sole option. Will they—and the sweet orphan boy Lubko (Jack Hollington) Yuri has adopted along the way—make it?

“Bitter Harvest” undoubtedly has its heart in the right place, but the execution is about at the level of the telefilms Mendeluk has specialized in over the course of his career. (The attempt at narrative symmetry between young Yuri and Natalka swimming happily as children at the beginning of the film and their attempted escape on the river at the close is typical of such pedestrian fare.) The fact that much of the picture was shot in the Ukraine (with interior shooting in England) makes for some interesting widescreen visuals (the cinematography is by Douglas Milsome), but the script is clunky and obvious, with both the political and romantic plots treated without subtlety or nuance (the periodic cutaways to Moscow, where Stalin holds court like a Mafia chieftain, are particularly clumsy).

Certainly the cast is incapable of bringing the material to life. Irons has matinee-idol good looks but the stiffness that often goes along with them, and Hassan matches Oliver in cardboard villainy. Pepper has the good fortune to disappear fairly early on, but Stamp’s character survives almost to the end, leaving the actor the unenviable task of suffering stoically through indignity after indignity. Barks is attractive, but in her hands the scenes of Natalka’s reactionary schemes against Sergei don’t register at all persuasively.

It’s admirable that Mendeluk, Bachynsky-Hoover and their colleagues should wish to publicize the genocidal policies taken against the Ukrainian people by the Soviets in the thirties—particularly in view of the designs that Russia has on Ukraine now. Unfortunately, their commitment is not matched by a similar degree of cinematic aptitude; the earnest but unimaginative approach results in an old-fashioned romantic melodrama that fails to do justice to the historical horrors that serve as its backdrop. In that respect it’s inferior to Atom Egoyan’s “Ararat,” about the Armenian genocide that preceded the Holodomor by fifteen years—though that film, too, fell short of the mark.

Perhaps, like the Holocaust, events such as these are simply too awful for any film to encompass them, except in the oblique and partial fashion that “Son of Saul,” to take a recent example, employed. Compared to a lacerating work such as that, the stolid “Bitter Harvest” barely registers a glancing blow.