Producers: Sean Bobbitt and Hugh Welchman   Directors: DK Welchman and Hugh Welchman   Screenplay: DK Welchman and Hugh Welchman   Cast: Maila Urzedowska, Robert Gulaczyk, Miroslaw Baka, Sonia Mietielica, Ewa Kasprzyk, Cezary Tukaszewicz, Cyprian Grabowski, Małgorzata Kożuchowska, Sonia Bohosiewicz, Dorota Stalińska, Andrzej Konopka, Mateusz Rusin and Maciej Musiał    Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Grade: C

Style triumphs over substance in this latest Polish screen adaptation of one of the country’s acknowledged literary classics, Wladyslaw Reymont’s multi-volume novel “Chłopi,” which was published in four parts between 1904 and 1909 and was instrumental in winning him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1924, a year prior to his death.  Organized by the seasons of a single year, the narrative follows the ruination of a young peasant girl in the central Polish village of Lipce, Jagna Paczesiówna, who becomes the focus of local suspicion and envy and is ultimately exiled from the community.  Her story is presented against a backdrop of social unrest, including a peasant uprising against the local lords. 

The film begins in autumn, as modest, beautiful Jagna (Maila Urzedowska) is looked on as marital material by all the strapping young men of Lipce, especially carpenter Mateusz (Mateusz Rusin).  But she’s attracted to Antek Boryna (Robert Gulaczyk), the virile son of widower Maciej (Mirosław Baka), the village’s richest peasant.  Unfortunately Antek already has a wife, Hanka (Sonia Mietielica), who’s understandably possessive of him—and the property he’s going to inherit.  When Maciej gets interested in marrying Jagna himself and offers her cunning mother Dominikowa (Ewa Kasprzyk) some precious acreage as a marriage portion, the betrothal is settled, and when Antek and Hanka object, Maciej evicts them from his household.

Come winter, the wedding occurs, but even during the festivities Antek’s interest in Jagna is obvious—and vice versa.  The domestic turmoil is interrupted, however, by a conflict between the peasants and the great landowners over forest rights.  An armed struggle results in which Maciej is seriously wounded and Antek, along with other peasants, arrested by their Russian occupiers.

The gossipy local women, envious of Jagna’s allure, accuse her of responsibility for the village’s troubles, even as Maciej relents and starts supporting Hanka and her family.  Meanwhile the lascivious mayor (Andrzej Konopka) brokers a deal for Antek’s release but takes advantage of Jagna’s participation to get her drunk and try to rape her.  Naturally she will be blamed for seducing him.  After Maciej dies overworking himself in his fields, Antek inherits the family property, but turns on Jagna, raping her during the town’s spring revels.

Summer finds Jagna a virtual outcast, and she angrily rejects Mateusz’s renewed proposal of marriage.  The villagers decide to rid the town of her, and Antek, now their leader, agrees; the mob attacks Jagna and forces her to leave.  She does so, brutalized but determined.

This is an extremely old-fashioned story, and its mustiness shows.  The characters, even Jagna, come across as caricatures—the garrulous gossips are basically comic stereotypes—and it’s never easy to work up much concern for what happens to any of them.  In the early twentieth century, when memories of the life the book depicted were still alive, it might have seemed arresting in a topical way; now it just strikes you as dated and stilted, despite the fact that one can divine a quasi-feminist message to Jagna’s tale of woe and her final act of defiance.

Yet the mode of presentation is remarkable.  It’s the same technique that writer-directors DK Welchman and Hugh Welchman employed in 2017’s “Loving Vincent”—a kind of rotoscoping in which live-action footage is literally painted over by an army of artists to make each image look like a moving oil painting.  It was a look perfect for the earlier film, which mimicked Van Gogh’s own work brought to vivid life in telling of his last days.  But while the labor-intensive process is still impressive here, it’s not integral to the narrative, and though for a while watching it is quite enthralling, it grows into a rather tedious affectation as the story drags on, courtesy of the overly stately editing by Beata Hincke, Patrycja Pirog, Miki Wecel and Dorota Kobiela.  The technique also mutes whatever nuances the actors provide, since the performances are blurred in the brushstrokes. 

So while you will probably admire the work of the creative team–the Welchmans, cinematographers Radoslaw Ladczuk, Kamil Polak and Szyman Kuriata, production designer Elwira Pluta, costumer Katarzyna Lewinska and especially animation supervisor Piotr Dominiak and his squadron of artists—and the powerful score of Lukasz Rostowksi (aka “L.U.C.”), “The Peasants” proves visually eye-catching but dramatically uncompelling.