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The Peasants (2023)

Easily one of the most memorable animated films of the past ten years is 2017's Loving Vincent. Claiming to be "the first fully painted" feature film, it recreates the art of Vincent Van Gogh to tell the story of the artist's final few days. The second film from the same directors was always going to attract considerable attention.

The Peasants is written and directed by D.K. Welchman and Hugh Welchman, based on the Nobel Literary prize-winning novel Chlopi by Wladyslaw Stanislaw Reymont. It is produced by BreakThru Films and is the official submission for Poland for the Best International Feature Film for the 96th Academy Awards. The film was released in the United Kingdom on December 8 and will be released in the US on January 26, 2024.

The film follows a young woman named Jagna living in a typical Polish village in the late 19th Century. She is forced into a marriage with a much older man- the richest farmer in town- but develops feelings for the farmer's son. She tries to find her own way in life, despite the gossip and rumour that surrounds her, thanks to her fellow villagers and the deep rooted patriarchy.

The first and most obvious thing to say about The Pesants is that it's absolutely beautiful. The film features stunning animation throughout. It differs from Loving Vincent in that it's not tied to recreating one artist's style, and it makes the most of it. The animation and the filmmaking is much more ambitious too, with a dynamic 'camera', swooping around and often following its lead. The cinematography is also very impressive, emphasising the bucolic beauty of the film's setting.

The beauty isn't only skin deep, however, and it's also a highly absorbing tale. Beneath the surface, the village is a hotbed of gossip and on-going feuds. Jagna in particular seems to be the victim of a lot of these. Baseless aspersions on her sexual morals are made by those jealous of her youth and beauty. Rumours surround her throughout, which is a problem in a highly judgmental and deeply religious place like the village.

The film expertly creates a sense of time and place. Although in theory, Jagna can move about the village freely, in reality it has an oppressive, suffocating atmosphere. And when she becomes trapped in her marriage it becomes doubly so. Except for a couple of brief scenes, the film takes place entirely within the confines of the village, which ultimately becomes like a prison to Jagna.

This is very much Jagna's story, with her appearing in almost every scene remaining at the centre of the action. That means a lot hangs on the central performance. Luckily, Kamila Urzedowska as Jagna gives a tour-de-force performance. Spirited and soulful, she's almost impossible not to empathise with. As the animation is based on live-action performances the acting is more important than in a traditional animated film. Fortunately, the performances here are strong across the board.

The Peasants is a Polish-language film and it's very culturally specific. Elements like the wedding scene and various traditions make this feel like a Polish film. At the same time, it's universal with the family politics and prevailing air of misogyny likely all-to-relatable with female audiences.

This is also definitely an adult film, with scenes of violence, sex, nudity and sexual threat (although no on-screen sexual violence). It never feels gratuitous though, and it feels like a necessary part of depicting life at that time. Still, it's a lot more brutal and a shade darker than your average period drama- be warned that the film ultimately comes to a disturbing climax.

Both a convincing portrait of the 19th century and very much a film made in the 21st, it deftly walks a fine line. One of the most beautiful animated movies ever made and with an engaging plot to back it up, The Peasants deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you can find.



Every frame's a painting in this beautifully animated feature that's as compelling as it is visually stunning.