‘The Peasants’ doesn’t brim with riches, but it works as an eccentric curiosity

“The Peasants” (2023) – “Surrounded by strangers I thought were my friends.” – “Against the Wind” (1980) by Bob Seger

For Jagna Paczesiowna (Kamila Urzedowska), she is surrounded by enemies. 

Kamila, 29, who could be Margot Robbie’s long-lost cousin, plays Jagna, a beautiful 20-something farmhand living in Lipce, a modest Polish village, in the late 19th century.  She’s a peasant, and like so many Lipce residents, Jagna toils on the land but doesn’t own it.  Prospects for wealth, or even simple comfort, are out of reach.

Conversely, a widower, Maciej Boryna (Miroslaw Baka) – with his six-acre estate – is “the richest farmer in town.”

The modern-day saying, “Cash is king,” doesn’t apply in Lipce.

Instead, land is king, and Jagna’s mother, Dominikowa (Ewa Kasprzyk), and Mayor Piotr (Andrzej Konopka) work out a marital arrangement between Maciej and Jagna that extends a reach into his treasured six acres. 

This is the story of “The Peasants”, a 108-minute film adaptation of Wladyslaw Stanislaw Reymont’s Nobel Prize-winning novel.  The current paperback runs 976 pages, so directors DK and Hugh Welchman had much to unpack and carefully choose which aspects to plant into their film. 

One plainly obvious wrinkle is that the Welchmans filmed a live-action production, but after the shoot, 127 artists – through “oil-painting animation” – essentially painted the film, frame by frame.  According to Rich Johnson’s Nov. 24, 2023 “Animation Magazine” article, the animators painted “40,000 frames of oil paintings.  If one person were to paint the entire film, it would take almost 100 years.” 

With so many folks on the Welchmans’ team, “’The Peasants’ took three years to paint and animate.”

It’s a mind-blowing effort, and the results offer a living, breathing artwork that beautifully sways and waves on-screen.  Brush strokes appear while cast members speak Polish and move about.  Visually, the best moments are when movements fill the frame, like large swathes of grass rolling with the wind, a flock of birds gliding in the sky, and a couple of vibrant dance scenes where dresses are swinging and spinning while a few local musicians are bursting with string instruments and an accordion. 

Although, the effect is also a bit surreal.  The animation may be distracting.  For this critic, it took 15 to 25 minutes to settle into a sense of comfort with the Welchmans’ creation.

Circling back to Reymont’s invention, the film follows the four seasons, beginning with autumn and ending with summer, and that’s by design.

The youthful Jagna marries the elderly Maciej (referred to by his last name, Boryna, throughout the movie) in the fall, the season when deciduous trees begin their slumber, and their leaves dry up and die. 

The marriage feels like Jagna’s death sentence, and one of the townsfolk snidely comments that the new bride looks as though she’s attending a funeral.  Meanwhile, Jagna and Boryna’s son, Antek (Robert Gulaczyk), have been engaging in an ongoing adulterous affair. 

Fans of the novel will be intimately familiar with the themes, and the movie version explores ugly topics, such as the aforementioned infidelity, jealousy, resentment, greed, smalltown gossip, an institutionalized class system steeped in sharp elbows and cruel words, and the double standards placed on women.

The movie also features several acts of violence (with fists and blunt objects), a couple of scenes with nudity, an attempted rape, and an actual rape.

No, “The Peasants” is not “Kung Fu Panda” (2008) or “Shaun the Sheep Movie” (2015), not in the slightest, and the Welchmans’ adapted screenplay does not contain one moment of humor.  This rated-R film is unsuitable for kids, nor will they find these grown-up-themed troubles particularly fascinating.  After the movie ends, one might also wonder about the reasoning for turning this tale into an animated feature rather than simply representing it as a live-action movie.

Reymont’s work is world-famous and significantly meaningful to Poland, so the movie’s presentation could present an everlasting and unique ode to the material.  The Welchmans and the team took extraordinary efforts to bring their innovation to fruition while also revealing the troubling nature of humanity in this cautionary and challenging saga, one that clearly communicates its grievances. 

For “The Peasants” experts, those close to Polish culture, or animation fans, this movie – and its dark themes – could brightly land with enthusiasm. 

For others, it could work as an eccentric curiosity, and that’s how “The Peasants” strangely surrounded me.

⭐ ⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐ ⭐⭐⭐

Directed by:  DK Welchman and Hugh Welchman

Written by:  DK Welchman and Hugh Welchman, based on Wladyslaw Stanislaw Reymont’s novel

Starring:  Kamila Urzedowska, Robert Gulaczyk, Miroslaw Baka, Ewa Kasprzyk, Sonia Mietielica, Mateusz Rusin, and Andrzej Konopka

Runtime:  108 minutes

Rated: R

Image credits: BreakThru Films

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