German director George Mendeluk takes a stab at historical melodrama with "Bitter Harvest," a tale of star-crossed lovers swooning against the backdrop of real-life tragedy. Set in Ukraine in the early 1930's, the film follows a young peasant farmer and aspiring artist named Yuri (a bland Max Irons) desperately fighting to maintain his connection to childhood sweetheart, Natalka -- portrayed by Samantha Barks, who made a great screen debut in 2012's "Les Misérables," but isn't given much to work with here.
The lovers are torn apart by the Holodomor (literally "death by hunger"), a famine orchestrated by the genocidal policies of Joseph Stalin, who sought to punish the region's independence-seekers and scoop up their resource-rich land in the process. Portrayed by actor Gary Oliver, Stalin sits in Moscow all but twirling his moustache while bellowing lines like "Damn those Ukrainians!"
Yuri journeys to Kiev with his political activist friends, and leaves behind the battle-tested legacy of his Bolshevik-defying father and grandfather (Barry Pepper and Terence Stamp, both seeming just as confused as we are as to why they're here). Yuri seeks to change the world through his art, but eventually gets himself caught up in more aggressive forms of revolution.
"Bitter Harvest" is timely, arriving at a moment when anti-Russian sentiment has reached a confusing new point. But Mendeluk's attempts to give the history some emotional heft are more often awkward and clumsy. The director's past work has mostly been in television (his last theatrical release was "Meatballs III: Summer Job"), and the epic scope he's aiming for consistently eludes him. His is undeniably a filmmaker with plenty of ambition, unfortunately it's made by those who seem to lack the resources or ability to really do it right.