Director George Mendeluk has stated that he wanted to make Bitter Harvest to bring wider attention to the Holodomor, the forced famine imposed by Joseph Stalin that killed millions of ethnic Ukrainians in the early 1930s. That's certainly a subject worthy of a film, but the question remains whether or not it should be a tale of star-crossed lovers torn asunder by tragedy -- or whether the director of Canadian cable TV dramas and Meatballs III: Summer Job was really the best choice to bring this history to a wider audience.
Mendeluk's childhood sweethearts Yuri (Max Irons) and Natalka (Samantha Barks) have some historically bad timing. Their romance blooms during the Bolshevik Revolution and then grows into the fullness of love on the eve of Stalin's rise to power. Lenin dies shortly after they marry, freeing Stalin to implement Soviet collectivization with extreme prejudice.
Horror and tragedy follow swiftly, though Mendeluk mostly keeps the attention on local events. The Soviet Kommissar in charge of lowering the boom is Sergei (Tamer Hassan), who is so cartoonishly evil he only lacks a handlebar mustache to twirl: He shoots priests, loots the church, hangs Yuri's father Yaroslav (Barry Pepper), forces the villagers off their land and runs down Natalka's mother on horseback, splashing her freshly baked bread with blood.
Bitter Harvest is at its best when Mendeluk concentrates on the big picture, namely the wider effects of the genocide (a scene in which Yuri stows away in a boxcar filled with corpses is particularly affecting). But a subject like the Holodomor demands something more than a TV-movie aesthetic.