First Hit: This film was a bitter pill to swallow let alone watch.
It is incredibly sad when the Holodomora, a hugely historical event of the last 100 years, gets such a milquetoast treatment. Russia admits that between this event of starvation, birth deaths, and war killed between 7 and 12 million Ukrainians.
The film tries to tell this story through a love affair and romance between Yuri (Max Irons) and Natalka (Samantha Barks). One unfortunate circumstance of this film is that there was little believable chemistry between these two. The film portrays her as damaged because of her family’s dynamics and him as a non-warrior because he’s a talented artist. When Russia decides it needs all the grain and riches in the Ukraine because Russia is starving and struggling to survive, Stalin orders his troops to take everything of value in the country by force.
By taking the food, their religious icons, and anything of value, the Ukrainians are starved to death. Unfortunately, the film’s treatment of this horrific event, and the lack of providing clarity around the depth of this historical precedence, turned me off. It might have worked if the love story was well done and a key driver, but it wasn’t. It was sort of a mishmash and smattering of scenes that just didn’t add up to telling this story.
One of the stories has Yuri’s grandfather Ivan (Terrance Stamp), once a famous war leader, leading their village’s resistance to the Russian occupiers by organizing the Ukrainian men. Another story is Yuri goes to Kiev to become an artist, but finding out how bad it is at home he stages, with friends, revolutionary talks in Kiev and gets jailed for his association with Ukraine. You have a story of his wife and villagers being pressed into subservience, including Natalka earning favor for her family by giving her body to a Russian leader.
Even the story of Yuri evolving to a warrior, breaking out of a Russian prison, and coming back to his home village lacked the kind of dynamics to make it work. None of the stories have enough oomph to make it all work.
Irons is flat as Yuri. I never bought him as an artist or revolutionary warrior. Barks was better in her role, but the continual dark scenes and lack of a consistent storyline hurt her part in the film. Stamp looked tired and bored as Ivan. His natural commanding presence was wasted and it seemed as if he knew this while being filmed. Richard Bachynsky Hoover wrote a weak script, especially if he wanted to share this horrific historical event with the world. George Mendeluk probably followed the script and story by Hoover, but I think he probably contributed to this mess.
Overall: This horrible story was hidden from the world when it took place and as the first film to try to tell this story, it failed.