Rated R: 103 minutes
One star out of four
"Stalin's tyranny could destroy their country. But not their love."
Yep, that's the tagline for "Bitter Harvest," the new movie about young love during the Holodomor, the 1932-33 forced famine in Ukraine orchestrated by Josef Stalin that killed millions. And if it sounds like a schmaltzy, soap opera-like treatment of a serious and historic tragedy, well, that's because it is.
That's too bad, because teaching important history to younger generations via popular culture is always a worthy cause. It's just that soaking this sobering story in a soppy romance does little to advance that cause.
"Bitter Harvest," directed by George Mendeluk, stars the British actor Max Irons (son of Jeremy) as Yuri, the thoughtful grandson of a venerated Ukrainian warrior, and Samantha Barks as Natalka, the village girl he loves. Barks finds a bit more depth of character between the lines of the gooey, unsubtle script by Mendeluk and first-time screenwriter Richard Bachynsky-Hoover; Irons, who might play a good Romeo one day, is reduced to smoldering soulfully as his country implodes.
We're introduced to these characters as children, in a seemingly idyllic life in the countryside, frolicking in the woods and swimming in the river. "My Ukraine," Yuri intones in an earnest opening voiceover, was a place "where legends lived and anything was possible." Yuri's father (Barry Pepper) inculcates a love of freedom in the young boy. "No one can ever take away our freedom," he tells Yuri, in words that we know will echo in his head — and we do mean literally — years later. "Remember that!"
One day, Yuri's grandfather Ivan (Terence Stamp) rides up to announce that the czar has been killed. "Now Ukraine can be free," he says (these two may be related by blood, but they do not seem to be related by accent — accents vary widely across the film). In a typically heavy-handed touch, two horses, unconnected to the action, are seen frolicking freely. (Later, when turbulence arrives, these same horses will be seen in an agitated state.)
In any case, we jump ahead to Yuri and Natalka as young adults. A budding artist, Yuri seeks to woo Natalka by painting her; she tries to discourage him, warning that she will bring him misfortune. But love wins out, and the two marry.
Life has become bleak and dangerous in the countryside. Stalin — in the first shot, we see him merely via a bushy moustache — has consolidated power after Lenin's death and introduced collectivization, which will lead to the devastating Ukraine famine of 1932 and 1933. "That could kill millions," he is told, of his plan to requisition up to 90 percent of Ukraine's harvest. "Who in the world would know?" the leader responds.
Yuri travels to Kiev, the capital, while Natalka remains home to care for her mother. Yuri enrolls at the art academy, but soon leaves, after being forced to paint idealized images dictated by Soviet authorities.
After a violent brawl with some soldiers, Yuri ends up in prison, where fellow inmates are being lined up and shot daily. He finds a way to escape and embarks on a desperate quest to rejoin Natalka in the countryside, where she and the rest of the family are starving.
The film is not without a few worthwhile educational moments; the sight of dead bodies strewn about Kiev, for example, representing the peasants who made last-resort trips to the capital to find food. But mostly, the determined focus on a not-so-interesting romance and the general small-scale approach to a large-scale story do not serve the filmmakers well. This is a history lesson that deserves a much better vehicle.