(M) 103 minutes
Whatever else you might say about George Mendeluk's Bitter Harvest, it's a film with good intentions – the main one being to boost international awareness of the Holodomor, the famine that engulfed Soviet Ukraine between 1932 and 1933, killing several million.
The film was shot more than three years ago, prior to the Russian military intervention in Ukraine which continues today. Still, it might well be understood as a comment on the enduring tensions between the two countries, especially as the question of what caused the Holodomor remains controversial.
While some historians see the deaths as the inadvertent result of forced collectivisation, others maintain they were deliberately engineered by the Soviet leadership to defeat Ukrainian nationalism. This latter view is the one favoured by Mendeluk, a veteran Canadian filmmaker of Ukrainian descent.
Mendeluk has been directing film and TV for around four decades, but you wouldn't know it from Bitter Harvest, a faintly unhinged propaganda piece full of laughably heavy-handed symbolism. In the opening sequences, Ukraine is visualised as a paradise of golden wheat fields, blue skies, and horses leaping in slow motion. But all this ends once the Soviet authorities come on the scene, plunging the land into seemingly eternal winter.
The sense of absurdity is reinforced by the stilted English-language dialogue by Mendeluk and co-writer Richard Bachynsky Hoover, woodenly delivered by a mostly British cast (who at least don't attempt Ukrainian accents, thankfully).
The young Cossack hero Yuri is played by the presence-free Max Irons, the kind of actor you hire when you can't get Daniel Radcliffe. The Canadian character actor Barry Pepper plays his father Yaroslav, while Yuri's childhood sweetheart Natalka is Samantha Barks, best-known as the doomed waif Eponine in the film of Les Miserables.
Terence Stamp supplies the nearest thing to star power as a sternly noble patriarch – though he evidently wasn't on set for very long, given that most of his lines are delivered in close-ups that minimise the need for him to interact with anyone else.
The episodic storyline dwells less than might be expected on the actual horrors of the Holodomor, which allegedly included widespread cannibalism. Rather, we follow the adventures of the sensitive Yuri, who's urged by his mother (Lucy Brown) to head to Kiev to study painting ("Go, and become the artist you always dreamed of being".).
In the big city, he has his eyes opened to politics and modern art, before being unjustly thrown in prison. From there, he battles to be reunited with Natalka, who meanwhile has to fend off the local commissar (Tamer Hassan), a troubled sadist with a mother complex who enjoys forcing women to wash his feet.
Technically, the film is an odd mix of incompetence and ambition. Many scenes are bewilderingly disjointed, reliant on voiceover and post-dubbed dialogue to hold them together – suggesting that editors Lenka Svab and Stuart Baird had to struggle to shape anything vaguely coherent from what was shot.
Yet there are some undeniably striking visual flourishes, presumably courtesy of cinematographer Douglas Milsome, a sometime collaborator of Stanley Kubrick. The candlelit interiors are indebted to Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, while the off-kilter angles and fish-eye lenses recall Orson Welles; strangest of all, a close-up of a broken pair of spectacles looks very much like a homage to Sergei Eisenstein's Soviet classic Battleship Potemkin.
Bitter Harvest has an erratic, zany quality which is hard to dislike completely: in some ways it's a welcome departure from the competent tedium of most historical epics not directed by Werner Herzog. Still, it's a campy oddity at best – and given the grim subject matter, it's hard to be more than briefly amused.