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REVIEW | THE PEASANTS

BY JOHN MCDONALD DECEMBER 4, 2023
The Peasants

In 2017, a unique film about Vincent Van Gogh graced us with its presence. Loving Vincent paraded itself as a great biopic and was crafted by an eccentric and distinctive style, one far from the norm. DK Welchman and Hugh Welchman, the married directing team behind that film have once again delivered an incredibly impressive and gorgeous film, but instead of following suit and delving into the world of a celebrity painter, they decided to explore the realms of adapting a book, and not just any book, but Wladyslaw Reymont’s 1927 Nobel Prize winner, 'The Peasants'. A decision was made by the filmmaking duo though, and that was to structure The Peasants with the oil painting style found in their debut film, but a painter’s biopic feels like the perfect opportunity for this experimental animation style, and yet, it's not nearly as needed, or at home, this time around.


Synopsis

Jagna is a young woman determined to forge her own path in a late 19th century Polish village - a hotbed of gossip and on-going feuds, held together, rich and poor, by adherence to colorful traditions and deep-rooted patriarchy.


Review

Initially, The Peasants was shot with all the actors, and more than a hundred painters working in several studios produced 40,000 oil paintings based on the shots, which then became frames – it’s roughly about six frames every second which, is an awful lot of work. On top of everything else that comes with producing a film, the 200,000 plus hours painters spent working on it seems… slightly excessive, no? Granted, The Peasants looks gorgeous, with this constantly moving painting being so unique and all, and its quality never falters from beginning to end – you can only respect the amount of work that has gone into it – but by the end, the novelty definitely wears thin.

The Peasants

The Peasants, just like its literary counterpart, is divided into four parts, which tell the story during each of the four seasons. Set during the late 19th century in the small Polish village of Lipce, it explores the life of Jagna (Kamila Urzędowska), a beautiful yet promiscuous young woman whom all the local men lust for and the women envy. This little town is known for its gossip and idle chit-chat, with the local women being wonderfully represented as meddlers who tell tall tales for a hobby – it will only end in feuds, tears, and anger in the end though. The village is held together by everyone’s pride in their fruitful land, with the rich and the poor connected in perfect harmony so everyone can taste the successes of such fertile grounds. The villagers also abide by strict traditions where the richer men get the pick of the best women, as well as having the most power and final say in village matters.


Jagna finds herself at the mercy of these traditions as she is forced to marry the richest farmer in the village, Maciej Boryna (Mirosław Baka), but secretly pines for his eldest son Antek (Robert Gulaczyk). Antek has become bitter about his father not gifting any of his land to him and it’s not long before he forgets about his wife and children and chases after his father’s sultry new wife, even if it is just for a glimpse of her skirt. Jagna’s affair with Antek is the talk of the town, and it begins to snowball out of control. The villagers talk amongst themselves about this girl; the charlatan; the harlot trying to "steal every woman's man," even if it’s the males gushing over her. If it’s not the mayor, or the carpenter, it’s the priest who's at the mercy of her charm, but with Jagna being just a lowly peasant girl, no one believes her, but do we even care anyway? Jagna’s fate was already sown into the fields long before the season started.

The Peasants

It’s an incredibly visceral film, with all the sex and the violence, and it’s quite clearly a dark story, especially the climactic ending. It feels odd to praise the acting for an animated film, but you should remember that it was filmed as a live-action before the painters got their colourful hands on it. Sometimes it can be difficult to judge the acting underneath all those layers of paint though. The actors were probably asked to overperform for large parts of the film, whether it's their expressions or the movements, as a means for the artists to easily create more personality into the characters. Just scratch away at the paint though and you will find some stellar performances holding the show down, with Kamila Urzędowska being the pick of the bunch.


It's not for everyone this film, with it being quite slow at times, and due to it being adapted from a 1000-page book, it was always going to be an uphill battle – it feels repetitive in moments, and even a little brief and unexplained. It was never going to live up to the epic nature of the book, nor was it ever going to match the book’s giant stature when attempting to forge the same world into a mere 115 minutes of runtime. Of course, it was always going to be daunting, but the choice to animate it does offer the film the best choice to become a successful adaptation. Animation is the perfect art form to efficiently lift The Peasants story from the pages as best it can. It feels as though you are reading the book, or even listening to the audio version, and what we are seeing on the screen are the images we have cultivated in our own minds. To answer the question asked at the beginning, was the oil painting aesthetic needed? Probably not, but by doing so, it resulted in the most honest retelling of this great book that it could.


STAR RATING

Rating The Peasants
The Peasants is in cinemas 8 December

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