‘The Peasants’— An Uneven Second Impression From Hugh & D.K. Welchman

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4 min readMar 5, 2024

Hugh and D.K. Welchman’s Loving Vincent released to universal acclaim in 2017, where the visual medium became a little more innovative and collaborative: animated over physical performers, the filmmakers used van Gogh’s style in painting each frame evoking the mood of his works as it told their story of what may have happened in the last days of his life. The Welchmans have broadened their scope considerably with their adaptation of The Peasants by Władysław Reymont.

Their efforts in bringing his 1000-page tome chronicling peasant life in an early 20th-century Polish village focuses on Jagna (Kamila Urzędowska), an unwedded young woman who becomes noticed by the rich farmer Boryna (Mirosław Baka) after his wife passes away, but not before his son Antek (Robert Gulaczyk) catches her eye. The story is told in four parts and takes place during each different season within a year’s time. Despite the novel’s simplicity, D.K. and Hugh Welchman’s reworking of the source attempts to take great care in translating the emotional state of the text. It smartly adopts the styles from the Young Poland painting movement from the same period, making each frame a literal work of art that took the film’s animators as much as 8 hours on a single frame.

THE PEASANTS.
Photo credit: Malgorzata Kuznik. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

And their dedication to infuse The Peasants with life is met with resounding success. There really cannot be enough praise in regard to the film’s visual approach and the hard work put in to make every shot a feeling, a lived space populated by beautifully diverse shades of oils that play subtly with light and shadow as Reymont’s novel does. But the depth of story the Welchmans inherit with this text clashes with their carefully constructed visuals and feels altogether rushed under the weight of their own technical demands.

In using hand-painted animation over the actors and filling in green screens the filmmakers had to make more efficient choices in cutting scenes, although they may have benefited more in including some instead. The pace of the film is brisk, and events seem to transpire in equal weight for the most part which robs the larger emotional read of the otherwise excellent performances of Urzędowska, Gulaczyk, and Baka as the story culminates in something that should feel devastating and shattering yet distances us as it approaches.

THE PEASANTS.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Yet as Loving Vincent may feel like a proof of concept for Peasants, the Welchman’s latest effort still feels like a proof of concept for their own burgeoning style of filmmaking in general. While there is a definite scope set for the village and its residents in the film, there doesn’t seem to be one in mind for The Peasants’ emotional peaks and valleys the story actually traverses, and it feels secondary to the visual method of their storytelling. The sense of betrayal at the heart of the novel and the film feels like an anchor point that takes the living portrait of Jagna through the hidden, hateful side of her own community as she becomes an object of hostility. It gives off the strange feeling that what is happening here is less a naturalistic portrait of humanity than it is a summarization of events, taking the shape of a cautionary tale to serve as the final thud before its credits roll.

The Peasants is still a technical marvel of filmmaking and no one is doing quite what Hugh and D.K. Welchman have been able to accomplish. But an important stretch of material gets lost in translation during the remarkable artistic transformation, its emotional component, which imbues the story with its core identity. Neglecting to draw out author Władysław Reymont’s pathos for the village’s claustrophobic view of community severely harms it. The stunning, vaguely impressionistic rendering of the story’s events curbs the unfortunate effect that, once over, The Peasants doesn’t affect quite as it should; perhaps that is the virtue of the Welchman’s extremely labor-intensive art process, a passion project that feels just ever so slightly uneven.

The Peasants is currently playing in select theaters courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Thank you for reading!
This article was originally published February 18th, 2024 on Geek Vibes Nation.

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