Truth and Movies

The World to Come

Review by Katie Goh @johnnys_panic

Directed by

Mona Fastvold

Starring

Casey Affleck Katherine Waterston Vanessa Kirby

Anticipation.

The latest in the ever-growing repressed-lesbian-period-drama canon.

Enjoyment.

It’s hard not to fall under Waterston and Kirby’s spell.

In Retrospect.

A poetic film about love and loss let down by its reliance on voiceover.

Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby forge a connection on the American frontier in Mona Fastvold’s period romance.

Tuesday, 1 January, 1856. A woman scrubs potatoes in a sink, the water freezing as soon as it hits cold air. “With little pride, and less hope, we begin the new year,” she notes in her diary. The woman is Abigail (Katherine Waterston), young, downcast but faithful in her role as wife to farmer Dyer (Casey Affleck) in rural Upstate New York.

The couple are mourning their infant daughter who has recently died of diphtheria, the emotional fallout from which Abigail records meticulously in her diary. The loss of her child is also the loss of Abigail’s religion (she no longer attends the local Sunday service). Instead she seeks comfort, resolution and salvation in her writing.

The narrative of Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come is framed by Abigail’s diary entries, beginning in the cold, hard winter when the charismatic Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and her possessive husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) arrive to rent the neighbouring farm. As spring arrives, friendship blossoms between the two women as they bond over a shared loneliness and frustration at their daily drudgery.

Soon the women are neglecting their wifely duties for each other’s company, much to their husbands’ chagrin. Tallie ignites a deep desire buried within Abigail and as the weather breaks so does the lonely woman’s inner frost. A quietly swooning romance begins.

Fastvold teases out this love story carefully and then relentlessly. Shot on 16mm by DoP André Chemetoff, much of The World to Come is composed of fragmentary moments narrated by Abigail’s epistolary monologues and soundtracked by Daniel Blumberg ’s emotive clarinet score. At different turns, the sublime natural setting is liberating and claustrophobic, locking the women in their unhappy homes or hiding them from prying eyes.

Katherine Waterston: ‘I would love to make this film five times’

While lyrical, The World to Come is far from a prettified period drama as an electrifying, nightmarish blizzard sequence establishes early in the film. This is a brutal world, one that has little time for romance, regardless of whether it’s between husband and wife or woman and woman.

The film’s quartet of leads are superb, but Waterston and Kirby are magnetic. Overly wrought dialogue is made supple by their naturalistic performances, yet the words left unspoken – communicated with the curl of a lip or hard gaze – is often more compelling than the words in the script.

The World to Come is adapted from Jim Shepard’s short story and the film’s screenwriters – Shepard himself alongside novelist Ron Hansen – rely almost entirely on Abigail’s diary entries to convey her emotional interiority. The voiceover narration is so frequent and so literary that it tends to weigh down Chemetoff’s lush imagery which seems to beg for a more naturalistic and loose dramatic tenor.

Nevertheless, The World to Come weaves a beguiling spell, told with both restraint and ecstasy. While the film’s lesbian romance is radical within its setting, it’s Abigail’s questions about the centuries of unpaid, unacknowledged labour of countless wives that feel urgently modern. The World to Come is a snowglobe of a film: a contained flurry of passion, as magical as it is short-lived.

The World to Come opens on limited release in the US on 12 February, and is available in the UK from 2 April.

Published 11 Feb 2021

Tags: Katherine Waterston Mona Fastvold The World to Come Vanessa Kirby

Anticipation.

The latest in the ever-growing repressed-lesbian-period-drama canon.

Enjoyment.

It’s hard not to fall under Waterston and Kirby’s spell.

In Retrospect.

A poetic film about love and loss let down by its reliance on voiceover.

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