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Soundtrack review: Bitter harvest (Benjamin Wallfisch – 2017)

Film scores

Soundtrack review: Bitter harvest (Benjamin Wallfisch – 2017)

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“Bitter Harvest” is a 2017 romantic-action drama film set in Soviet Ukraine in the early 1930s during the Holodomor Genocide starvation policy that killed millions of Ukrainians under Stalins forced collectivization of all farms and businesses owned by Ukrainians. Inspired by actual events, Bitter Harvest follows two lovers, played by Irons and Barks, struggling with their kurkul grain farmer families to survive as Joseph Stalin’s collectivisation campaign and purge of the independent grain farmers and their property and other crops is confiscated by Stalin’s Red Army and henchmen in the Soviet Ukraine during the Soviet famine of 1932–33. Yuri, an artist from a family of revolutionaries, slowly becomes entangled with the anti-Bolshevik resistance at school in Kyiv after an escape from prison, while his family and childhood sweetheart Natalka are crushed by Stalin’s policies at home. He must race to defeat Commissar Sergei on his family farm – now a collective farm. Benjamin Wallfisch wrote this score and he is one of the best composers working today.

Naturally when I listen to a Russian influenced score I’m expecting to hear the violin and the balalaika. “Rusalka”, the opening theme, uses both and the flute to evoke the majestically beautiful Russian images I got from the countless novel I read; the melody is sensitive and stunningly innocent and I can’t help but be amazed by the metamorphosis of this composer from the best master of horror currently to such an incurable romantic. A beautiful and emotional opening such as this sets the bar high for “Bitter harvest”.

The score needed an opening like that thought to make me care and to get me to pay attention. As the score develops I can’t help but admire how much this score is different from Hans Zimmer or RCP scores; Benjamin Wallfisch spends a lot of time teaming up with Hans but when he writes on his own he is potently carving his own face on the mountain. The fresco of “Bitter Harvest” is varied and tells a story as opposed to being just a collection of cues; it’s not a drama score that aims to extort tears from the listener, it’s not meant to tackle the tragedy of millions but the suffering of a couple. The composition is complex but intimate and mostly quiet as if living in hiding.

The violin motifs are touching and represent the simplest and most efficient way to express love in this score; they are once again solo instead of a full orchestra. It’s in the most heartbreaking themes, like “Rusalka”, “Natalka” or “Letter from home” that the composer abandons the textural subdued emotion and goes for the heart. Then there are the mourning vocal chants like “Kiev”, “Elegy for Ukraine” and “Woman’s revolt” that also get to me. Benjamin Wallfisch also makes an affecting use of the flute throughout the score; at some points, like “Orphans”, the flute motif almost sounds Celtic. Then there’s the Russian choir that doesn’t need more than a minute to give me goosebumps in “Sense a change”. The few action pieces are just as subdued and blend in very naturally with the quiet emotional fabric of “Bitter harvest”.

With “Bitter Harvest” Benjamin Wallfisch shows that he can write drama just as good as horror. This is a beautiful and sad composition and the 75 minutes of this album make sense as a whole more than as separate pieces. The main violin theme which recurs a few times is memorable and emotional and the supporting cues are just as meaningful. The more of his scores I listen to (and there have been 4 excellent ones only in 2017) the more excited I get for the next. And in his case, the next one happens to be a collaboration with Hans Zimmer for a little project called “Blade Runner 2049”.

Cue rating: 94 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 51 / 74

Album excellence: 68%

Highlights:
Rusalka
Leaving The Village
Ancestors
Natalka
Kiev
Letter From Home
Sense A Change
Elegy For Ukraine
Gulag
Letter To Yuri
Women’s Revolt
Orphans
The Icon
Smila Is My Home
Cossack Prayer
Phoenix
In Memoriam
Bitter Harvest
Nad Dunaem (DakhaBrakha) (Digital only)

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Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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