With its story set during the true and underrepresented genocide of the Ukrainian people by the Soviet Union in the early 1930’s, Bitter Harvest is every bit as emotionally crushing as one would expect. The plot mainly concerns the fictional story of two young lovers (Max Irons and Samantha Barks) torn apart by the fighting and famine, and their quest to reunite, no matter what the cost. I must admit, a period piece about two star-crossed lovers being oppressed by the Soviet Union did not sound like an especially exciting or interesting movie to me at first, but the more of Bitter Harvest I watched, the more engrossed I became. For the most part, this is an intense and sobering look at love in the face of one of the greatest horrors humanity has seen.
The film is very dry, as one would expect from a movie based on a topic like this. Mostly this somber tone is used to highlight the severity of the famine, but it does at times become a bit too slow moving for its own good, particularly toward the beginning when it focuses on the story of the two lovers. Credit where credit is due, though: both actors do a fine job with their characters and carry the movie pretty solidly. It’s especially nice to see Samantha Barks again after her excellent debut in Les Miserables. You really do find yourself caring about these two characters, and hoping that they make it through these hardships and reunite, even when the movie starts to drag a bit.
While the majority of Bitter Harvest aims to be a grounded and realistic portrait of the devastating genocide, the filmmakers all too frequently step away from this realism, and pad out the story with over-the-top tropes and stock characters. The antagonist, for example, is a Soviet officer so cartoonishly evil he might as well be twisting his mustache as he intimidates Samantha Barks. It’s a bit distracting to have this gritty account of a tragic real-world conflict interrupted by a character this one-dimensional.
Without stepping into spoiler territory, the final act of the film furthers this loss of realism. The filmmakers seemingly abandon their vision for a grounded and harrowing account of this frustratingly little-known atrocity, in favor of wrapping up the film’s fictitious plotlines with a conventionally satisfying ending. I understand where they were coming from, but I found the odyssey about fighting your way home through a war to be far more compelling when it felt like fact-based historical fiction.
Despite its tone problems, occasionally slow pacing, and questionable production decisions (these are some incredibly British-sounding Soviet Ukrainians – Joseph Stalin speaking the Queen’s English just doesn’t play right) Bitter Harvest is a mostly compelling take on the familiar “power-of-love-can-conquer-any-adversity” storyline, with a fascinating and heart-wrenching history lesson sprinkled in for good measure.