After 2017’s Loving Vincent and Toronto International Film Festival world premiere The Peasants, it is clear that DK Welchman and Hugh Welchman have developed a gorgeously distinct, personal, ludicrously involved style of filmmaking. Loving Vincent, a clever biography of Vincent Van Gogh, was sold as “the world’s first fully painted feature film,” and indeed it was. The painting process returns in The Peasants, an adaptation of Władysław Reymont’s early 1900s, Nobel Prize–winning novel. A staggering 40,000 frames of film were painted to bring The Peasants to life.

That is an incredible achievement, one that should give the filmmakers and all involved in the production a sense of pride. Unfortunately, watching the finished product inspires difficult questions. Was it worth it? Does the final product warrant the years of painstaking labor involved? Both questions must be answered with a firm no. The Peasants is a visually breathtaking, dramatically inert misfire. Overwrought and dreary, it is a noteworthy effort that is nonetheless a major disappointment.

This means the film is actually a step down after Loving Vincent, which was sumptuous to look at but narratively pedestrian. Vincent, still, was an admirable effort and genuine experience; audiences responded, resulting in modest success and legit critical praise for the Welchmans. It is hard to imagine The Peasants earning that degree of interest or satisfaction. 

What is undeniable, as much as the beauty of its images, is the strength of its casting. The utterly incandescent Kamila Urzedowska plays Jagna, a young woman living with her widowed mother in a 19th-century Polish village. She is content with her simple life––crafting paper cutouts, being at home with her mother––but aware that there is already talk of who she may or may not marry. Such is the state of young womanhood in the early 20th century, a somber fact of life that her fellow village denizens greet with a shrug. Urzedowska is heartbreakingly believable as Jagna, a woman with literally no control over her future.

There is, however, palpable lust between Jagna and the gruff, muscular Antek (Robert Gulaczyk, Loving Vincent’s Van Gogh). Antek and his wife and children live on the land of his father, Boryna (Mirosław Baka). Boryna is the village’s “first farmer,” a position that gives him some measure of power. Like Urzedowska, Gulaczyk and Baka are well-cast, speaking to the directors’ abilities to populate their work with figures who have––quite frankly––memorable faces, and are also passionate performers. 

None of these characters, though, are particularly well-written. Jagna’s attraction to Antek and his to Jagna are not hard to understand. But their reckless actions, especially after she is married off to Boryna, defy belief. (It is Antek who initiates these activities.) And even though Gulaczyk is a fine actor, his motivations become scattered and downright silly. It all culminates in a final stretch that makes the endings of David Lean’s Irish epic Ryan’s Daughter and Polanski’s Tess (both, of course, inspired by or based on classic novels) feel restrained by comparison. And we have not even mentioned the poorly realized melee between the villagers and a neighboring squire and his men. This ongoing battle with “the Squire” over rights to the forest is presented with zero context and little explanation––it adds nothing to the narrative, and in the second half Jagna seems an afterthought in her own story.    

There are lovely moments in The Peasants, chiefly the exhilarating wedding between Jagna and Boryna set to the powerful music of Lukasz L.U.C. Rostkowski. Finally, though, there is only one sequence in The Peasants wherein these painted frames serve to enhance the story. It is a stunning change-of-seasons shot––we watch as snow falls and autumn in the village literally becomes winter. Otherwise the painting does not add to the narrative in any way. It feels obtrusive and showy, an unnecessary addition to a story that does not deserve such a meticulous process.

What audiences are left with, then, is a work that does not build on the achievements of Loving Vincent; it’s rather a step backward. For all its flaws, Loving Vincent felt like an event––a motion picture that resembled no other. The Peasants is a histrionic and often-ludicrous bummer, one that wastes the deeply committed performance of star-in-the-making Kamila Urzedowska. The Welchmans deserve credit for developing a unique style. Now it is time to write words that match these images.

The Peasants premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

Grade: C-

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