Bitter Harvest earnestly wants to tell the story of one of history’s greatest forgotten and overlooked atrocities: the Holodomor. In 1932 and 1933, the Russian government under the leadership of Joseph Stalin purposefully created a man made famine by taxing the Ukrainian people within an inch of their lives, forcing them to produce crops solely for use by the Soviets and leaving almost nothing for their own people. Millions of Ukrainians died during the Holodomor, a genocide that the Russian government denied for decades. It’s wrenching to think about and worthy of a serious cinematic examination, but the melodramatic and poorly written Bitter Harvest isn’t it.

Instead of telling a historical account of the Holodomor, we’re treated to a bog standard tale of overcoming adversity, fighting for love,and becoming part of a familial legacy. Yuri (Max Irons, leading a cast of actors all doing British or North American accents in a film about Ukrainian people) wants to leave his small town life behind and become an artist in Kiev, despite being the only son of a noted warrior (Barry Pepper), whose grandfather before them (Terence Stamp, looking perpetually annoyed and rarely like he’s in the same film as the other performers) was also a beloved military hero. Yuri loves Natalka (Samantha Barks), and he vows to send money back home from the big city and return to his beloved in one piece. Yuri leaves his farming community following the death of his father and injuries suffered by his mother at the hands of Russian troops demanding an increased production of crops and all their worldly possessions. Things go south for Yuri in a hurry while in Kiev as the Russians seize more and more control over the Ukrainian people. Yuri is forced into running from the law and a potential death sentence in a bid to return home, where Natalka and Yuri’s grandfather attempt to stay alive amid famine and sadistic Russian rule in their village.

You can’t live in a house built on good intentions, and Bitter Harvest proves that you can’t make a great film out of them, either. Considering that this film from veteran film and television director George Mendeluk is one of the first somewhat epic looks at one of history’s largest genocides, it’s curious that the script from Mendeluk and Richard Bachynsky Hoover finds itself more easily caught up in a half-baked romantic subplot and laughably overwritten character beats. Instead of placing likeable characters in a well rounded story with the Holodomor as a backdrop, Bitter Harvest becomes an unworkable mish-mash of clichés and atrociously conceived scenes and exchanges.

Bitter Harvest is the kind of film where someone unironically says “Hell is the inability to love” before getting shot in the head at point blank range by a Russian soldier. It’s the kind of film where brief appearances by an almost moustache twirling Stalin (played here by Gary Oliver) are shot and written like bizarre Canadian Heritage Moments. It also includes what might be the most laughably executed – but ostensibly serious – drug trip sequence I’ve ever witnessed when Natalka drugs a sadistic Bolshevik officer. Every time one hopes that Mendeluk can find some sort of groove with this material as a director, the unusable script goes and does something implausible and stupid, often coupled with dialogue so tinny and overwrought that no actor – not even pros like Pepper and Stamp – could hope to make it work.

There are some positives to be found throughout Bitter Harvest, though. While Hoover and Mendeluk don’t make a great screenwriting team, Mendeluk does offer up a quick pace and some decent visuals. The film’s shift from pastoral golden tones in its early scenes of romantic bliss to colder, gunmetal tones in the film’s second half is a nice touch and well executed. And while Stamp and Barks seem at a loss with their characters, Irons gives everything he has to make sure his protagonist is worth following around.

It should also go without saying that anything that brings the not often talked about Holodomor to light is admirable, and in some ways Bitter Harvest does function as a subtle nod to the current relationship between Ukraine and Russia. These elements don’t make Bitter Harvest a good film by any stretch, but at least they make it an admirably mediocre affair.