Bitter Harvest covers the same territory, so to speak, that The North Star did. They are both set in Soviet-era Ukraine and involve the farming communities therein. Unlike The North Star's romanticized world of happy farmers forever singing among their bountiful crops, Bitter Harvest is closer to the truth of the brutal suppression of the State on those who dared oppose it. It might be a bit bogged down in the romance and be saddled with a clunky title, but Bitter Harvest is a much better film than expected.
Young Yuri (Max Irons) is a Ukrainian who is different from his father Yaroslav (Barry Pepper) and grandfather Ivan (Terence Stamp). Both of them are warriors, while Yuri is an artist who is generally not encouraged to be warlike. He has loved Natalka (Samantha Barks) since they were children and dreams of marrying her despite her illegitimate birth.
Life in their Ukrainian village is idyllic and peaceful, and even in the early days of the Russian Revolution there is some willingness to work with the Communists. Yuri and Natalka's friend Mykola (Aneurin Barnard) in particular is fond of 'The State' and of what Communism stands for. He also has a relative in Kiev that can get them all jobs, but Yuri wants to stay.
He also wants to marry Natalka, going so far as to have a one-night stand with her at a festival, the ardor of their passion unable to wait.
Then comes Stalin (Gary Oliver), who wants collectivism in Ukraine. The villagers are not hot for this idea, nor for the removal of their holy relics from their church. They want to hold on to their most sacred icon, the Icon of St. Yuri, something that new commissar Sergei (Tamer Hassan) wants. He wants their total subjugation.
By this time Yuri has finally gone to Kiev to study art, and he appears talented. He is encouraged by his teacher to follow more Surrealist and Cubist forms rather than his own more traditional manner. He even gets inspired by Mykola, who has risen to head the Ukrainian Communist Party.
Any hopes that Ukraine could keep its autonomy is quickly dissipated by the Russian Soviets, who now push hard on the people. The art must be Socialist Realism, much to Yuri's disdain. The concept of 'Ukraine' is similarly to be wiped out, causing mass arrests and Mykola's suicide. Worse is the collectivization, which forces Yuri's family and village to take arms.
It also leads to the Holodomor, the mass starvation/genocide of the Ukrainian people. The people suffer and Yuri finds himself not just imprisoned but tortured physically and psychologically. It's only by the thinnest of threads that he is not part of a series of mass executions but he manages to escape to return to Natalka.
Natalka, who is expecting, attempts to poison Sergei but fails. This leads to more oppression and a loss of their child. Yuri for his part now finds himself taking up his heritage of a warrior and is joined by Lubko (Jack Hollington), an orphan who serves both as physical guide and conscience.
Things culminate in a final battle with Sergei and the Russian troops. Yuri also reveals that the icon Natalka reluctantly traded for their family's release was a fake he had created, the real one safely hidden. He sees his mother and grandfather before both die in separate circumstances, and together with his now-wife Natalka and their 'son' Lubko, flee to the Polish border and we believe eventually to either Canada or the United States.
The romanticism in Bitter Harvest may be its weakest point. I could not help think of The North Star in that the opening moments pre-Soviet occupation suffer from the same idyllic imagery that The North Star had. Director George Mendeluk bathes everything in a bright, soft light, all sunshine and happy folk dancing. Even the plunge into a lake of the young Yuri and Natalka has a very poetic visual nature that might be a touch much. Once we see the Soviets coming, the film becomes dark visually, all heavy clouds and night scenes.
It's something we've seen before, and while it conforms to the language of cinema, it may be gilding the lily just a touch.
In terms of performances, I think they did on the whole well. Irons is an up-and-comer, and he plays dreamy and lovelorn quite well, though at times the 'passion' between him and Natalka was veering close to exaggerated. He also can handle the action parts well without losing that dreamy aspect of Yuri. By that I mean he can do the action scenes, but you always sense that he was a reluctant warrior.
Barnard's part was smaller and perhaps underdeveloped, but I was highly impressed with him since I saw him in Citadel, and he does not disappoint in Bitter Harvest. You can see the disillusionment with Communism, even if like many subplots in the film, it comes and goes quickly.
Irons and Barnard impressed me to where they hopefully will have greater opportunities.
Barks was as good as her material, which like Barnard's part did not push her as an actress as much as it could have. Stamp and Pepper were underused as well but did have strong moments.
I'd say the biggest flaw in Bitter Harvest was the ending. Apart from using voiceover, it left one unclear whether the three of them made it across the Polish border. You also see the Icon of St. Yuri either left behind accidentally or on purpose, which again was not clear.
I found those minor flaws and was much more impressed with Bitter Harvest than I thought I would be. The Holodomor is an important story that needs to be much more known. I do not know if Bitter Harvest is the film to tell that story well, but it serves as a good primer.