“Bitter Harvest” is a wannabe historical epic set against the backdrop of Joseph Stalin’s genocidal policies against Ukraine in the 1930s. I say wannabe because despite the sweeping nature of the story this is more melodramatic war soap opera than “War and Peace.”
Set at the time of the Soviet famine of 1932–33, “Bitter Harvest” is the story of two lovers, Cossack grain farmer and artist Yuri ( Max Irons ) and Natalka ( Samantha Barks ). Childhood sweethearts, they are torn apart and will only see one another again if they can survive the Holodomor, a Soviet regime “extermination by famine” policy that claimed millions of Ukrainian lives. Jailed in a Soviet gulag, Yuri stages a daring escape so he can join the anti-Bolshevik resistance movement and find his way back to Natalka.
“Bitter Harvest” is the story of an underreported atrocity, a genocide that didn’t become widely known until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. It’s an important slice of history but by the time an evil Russian is forcing Natalka to not only wash his feet, but then dry them with her hair, any hope for nuance has been thrown out the window. Trading in stereotypes of the most banal kind the movie tries but fails to bring us inside the horror of the situation.
“The Riot Club” is a story of excess, contempt and aristocratic entitlement. Based on the play “Posh” by Laura Wade it centers around a fictional version Oxford University’s Bullingdon or Riot Club, a two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old drinking fraternity.
The film doesn’t come with an “Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental,” disclaimer, probably much to the chagrin of former real-life members, Prime Minister David Cameron and Mayor of London Boris Johnson.
The bulk of the movie takes place at an elaborate dinner in the backroom of a gastropub. Two first year students, ‘Milo’ Richards (Max Irons) and Alistair Ryle (Sam Claflin) are inducted into the legendarily elite club. It’s all debauched fun and games until a few perceived slights—a “ten bird roast” arrives with only nine layers and a hired call girl declines their requests—ignites a drunken, violent response.
Director Lone Scherfig takes her time getting to the meat of the matter. Setting the scene gives us a sense of time and place but feels unnecessary in terms of making the larger point of the insulation from consequences privilege can provide. Perhaps it’s a way to enrich the ham-handed message—is it really such a surprise that ultra-rich yobs can behave pretty much however they like?—or the cartoonish climax but it doesn’t add much dramatically.
The large ensemble—it’s a who’s who of young English actors, including Douglas Booth, Natalie Dormer and Jessica Brown Findlay—hold it together admirably but the story of class warfare might have been stronger if there were a few more skirmishes along the way.