Continuing the much-valued painted animation technique that was used previously with Loving Vincent (2017), married directors DK Welchman and Hugh Welchman deliver a despairing, sometimes grueling, and tiring adaptation of Władysław Reymont’s classic Polish novel of The Peasants. For all its visual flourishes and impressive animation, the melodramatic historical drama can’t overcome its disadvantage, in which the animation either pulls away from the story or the story pulls away from the animation due to how taxing the narrative is. Clearly tailing off the success of the much more affecting Loving Vincent with the animation, there is something dramatically inert with the material that seems at odds with the animation.
This mature animation about desire and persecution in a Polish rural village during the 19th century has many glorious moments with its rich textures and colors where the striking animation appears to be popping out at you. Where the technique worked more in the Welchman’s Loving Vincent as the airy animation reflected the perspective of Vincent van Gogh, it carries over some effectiveness and felt like a meditation of his artwork and struggles. However, the impressionistic style and palette make it feel less motivated and more distracting than the approach before. Perhaps the desolate material just isn’t serviceable for the animation. While the second hour ignites more, the first half hour takes a while to find its dramatic rhythm.
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.
The Peasants opens with its central character, Jagna (Kamila Uzerdowska), a gorgeous woman who has striking blonde hair and a radiant smile that could easily pass as Margot Robbie. She ends up being coerced to marry a wealthy landowner, Maciej Boryna (Mirosław Baka), where she is bargained part of the land deal. Jagna ends up falling for Maciej’s peasant son, Antek (Robert Gulazyzk). Jagna has a defiant side, but her character never reaches as much vulnerability as I would like. Antek is also just a brute who constantly gets into fights and brutalizes others to the point where you almost feel like he’s a villain who never finds a genuine human side.
While the classic story deserves more affinity there is uneasy sexual tension between the three characters where the script jettisons sexual underpinnings on the primitive side of human possession, especially when it reaches a level of weaponized masculinity. Indeed, when the emotion of jealousy comes through between others, acts of barbarism and violence sadly occurs within the narrative. As the film stays true to the moral void of the material where there many moments that holds enormous range, the impact feels reduced, the actors and story just don’t seem to resonate.
While the adaptation has legitimate ambitions, is partly because the relationship between Jagna and Antek isn’t well developed, not entirely romantic, and rarely engaging. When they aren’t on screen together, the rest of the drama, conflicts, and drama feel like an emotional dead end. It’s a commendable effort that ends up becoming more tedious than engaging. The result is an uneven blend of romance and bad melodrama, given a kind of craggy, wonderous type of magical realism that never fully captivates.
THE PEASANTS is now playing in limited theaters.