Review: ‘The Peasants’ (2023), starring Kamila Urzędowska, Robert Gulaczyk, Mirosław Baka, Sonia Mietielica, Ewa Kasprzyk, Andrzej Konopka and Cezary Łukaszewicz

January 8, 2024

by Carla Hay

Kamila Urzędowska (sitting at far right) and Robert Gulaczyk (standing) in “The Peasants” (Photo by Julia Spiwakowa/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Peasants” (2023)

Directed by DK Welchman (also known as Dorota Kobiela) and Hugh Welchman

Polish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the late 1800s, in Lipce, Poland, the animated film “The Peasants” (based on the novel of the same name) features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young woman is forced into a marriage to a widower who is old enough to be her father, while she has a secret affair with her husband’s married son. 

Culture Audience: “The Peasants” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching unusual-looking animated films with gritty and provocative subjects.

Pictured in front: Kamila Urzędowska and Cezary Łukaszewicz in “The Peasants” (Photo by Malgorzata Kuznik/Sony Pictures Classics)

A gorgeously painted animated film, “The Peasants” tells a haunting, well-acted story about the cruelty of oppressive and violent misogyny in 1800s Poland. The explicit content might be off-putting to viewers who expect animation to be mostly family-friendly. “The Peasants” is by no means a masterpiece film, but it’s a movie with compelling characters and can be fully immersive for viewers who don’t have short attention spans. “The Peasants” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

Directed by DK Welchman (also known as Dorota Kobiela) and Hugh Welchman, “The Peasants” is based on Władysław Reymont’s Nobel Prize-winning novel of the same name, which was published between 1904 and 1909. It’s the third movie adaptation of “The Peasants,” after a 1922 and 1973 version. “The Peasants” was also made into a 1972 limited series. The 2023 version of “The Peasants” was filmed with live actors, but the frames of the movie are meticulous painted and presented as animation. DK Welchman and Hugh Welchman used the same animation technique for their 2017 Oscar-nominated animated film “Loving Vincent.”

Just like the novel, the 2023 version of “The Peasants” is told in four chapters named after the four seasons of the year, starting with autumn. The story takes place in the village of Lipce, Poland, where this small community is steeped in rigid and sexist social structures. Women are treated like property that can be bought and sold into marriage. A woman’s worth is based primarily on being a wife and mother.

The time period in which the story takes place (late 1800s) isn’t an entirely an excuse for the horrible way that women and girls are mistreated in the society that’s shown in the movie. Many of today’s communities in various parts of the world still believe in and enforce misogynistic society rules that treat women and girls as inferior and not worthy of having the same opportunities and education as men. It’s an unsettling truth that much of what happens in “The Peasants” is still relevant to what happens today.

In “The Peasants,” the community of Lipce is also a cesspool of gossip. Many of the residents are farmers. The people in the community who are the wealthiest are those who own the most land. Not all of the misogyny comes from men, since many of the women in the community are perpetrators of actions that keep other women oppressed—usually because of jealousy.

It’s in this emotionally toxic environment that 19-year-old Jagna Paczesiówna (played by Kamila Urzedowska) lives with her widowed mother Marcjanna “Dominikowa” Paczes (played by Ewa Kasprzyk), who is determined to have Jagna marry a wealthy man. The wealthiest man in Lipce is a widower named Maciej Boryna (played by Miroslaw Baka), who is old enough to be Jagna’s father. Maciej, who has a domineering personality, is also the most powerful person in Lipce.

Jagna, who has an artistic talent of making cutouts, is envied for her beauty and for being one of the most sought-after women in the community. She has a kind and friendly personality that makes her approachable. Most of the jealousy about Jagna comes from gossipy, middle-aged women, including the mayor’s wife (played by Sonia Bohosiewicz), who doesn’t have a name in the movie. The mayor’s wife likes to think she’s a matchmaker, but she’s really a meddler.

Because Jagna is flirtatious with some of the men who approach her, the gossipers in the community spread lies about her being promiscuous. In this community, the concept of “dating freedom” is very one-sided: Men, whether they are married or not, are allowed to seek out more than one love interest/love partner, while young women are expected to be “virginal” when they get married. It’s a double standard that will have dire consequences for someone in this story.

Even though several men in Jipce want to court Jagna, she has fallen in love with Antek Boryna (played by Robert Gulaczyk), a local farmer who charms her when they first meet by giving her a stork that they see in a pond. There are two major problems with Jagna and Antek being together as a couple: First, Antek is married to Hanka Borynowa (played by Sonia Mietielica), and they have three children together. Secondly, Antek’s father is Maciej, who has his sights set on marrying Jagna as a “trophy wife.”

Antek has tensions with his wife and his father. Antek is unhappily married to Hanka, because he seems to have fallen out of love with her. Hanka is not a difficult wife, but she is understandably upset that Antek has become cold and distant from her, while she remains loyal and committed to the marriage. Antek has arguments with Maciej because Maciej refuses to give Antek any land that Antek think he’s entitled to having as an heir.

Maciej has two other children: a son named Magda (played by Jadwiga Wianecka) and a daughter named Zoska (played by Klara Bielawka), who is married to a man named Michał (played by Cezary Łukaszewicz). Antek is the most outspoken and forceful of Maciej’s children, when it comes to demanding that he get a share of Maciej’s property while Maciej is still alive. Antek and Hanka both think that Maciej is ungrateful for all the work that Antek is doing for Maciej.

Other people in the village who have an effect on what happens in the story include Mayor Piotr (played Andrzej Konopka) and a blacksmith named Michal (played by Cezary Lukaszewicz), who is one of Jagna’s admirers. The mayor’s wife is the first to plant the idea in Maciej’s head that Jagna would make an ideal wife for Maciej. Jagna is courted by Maciej, who knows that Jagna doesn’t feel comfortable with him, but he pursues her anyway.

Jagna doesn’t feel like she’s ready to get married, but her greedy mother makes a deal with Maciej that forces Jagna into marrying him. Antek is predictably upset that his lover is now his father’s wife, but he and Jagna continue to have a secret affair after she marries Maciej. “The Peasants” shows what happens to this love triangle in ways that might be disturbing for some viewers but it’s realistic to how many people act when love and jealousy become entangled with each other.

The acting performances in “The Peasants” are very effective for the characters that have the most development. Urzedowska is the obvious standout as Jagna, who is not naïve but she has an open heart and is experiencing love for the first time. Urzedowska does an admirable job of conveying Jagna’s vulnerability and resilience. Gulaczyk capably handles his role as the complicated Antek, who seems like a romantic lover to Jagna, but can she really trust someone who cheats on his wife in this way?

One of the more effective aspects of “The Peasants” is in the way it shows how the ugly sides of humanity can exist in very beautiful settings. The outdoor locations are vivid and idyllic, such as in scenes where Jagna and Antek meet in rustling fields or near tranquil ponds during their secretive trysts that have an underlying sense of danger if they get caught committing adultery. And during Jagna’s miserable marriage to Maciej, she lives in a luxurious home, but Maciej is abusive to her, and she’s like a wounded bird trapped in a gilded cage.

The pacing of “The Peasants” occasionally drags, and some of the characters are underdeveloped. For example, an organist named Jasio (played by Maciej Musiał), who seems to be interested in Jagna, is given nothing substantial to do in the story. Some viewers might not like how this movie ends. No matter how terrible things get for Jagna in “The Peasants,” the movie has a message of hope that abuse survivors can have a lot of inner strength that cannot be destroyed.

Sony Pictures Classics released “The Peasants” in select U.S. cinemas on December 8, 2023.

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