THE STORY – In this frontier romance framed by the four seasons and set against the backdrop of rugged terrain, Abigail (Katherine Waterston), a farmer’s wife, and her new neighbor Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) find themselves powerfully, irrevocably drawn to each other. As grieving Abigail tends to the needs of her taciturn husband Dyer (Casey Affleck) and Tallie bristles at the jealous control of her husband Finney (Christopher Abbot), both women are illuminated and liberated by their intense bond, filling a void in their lives they never knew existed.
THE CAST – Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, Christopher Abbott & Casey Affleck
THE TEAM – Mona Fastvold (Director), Ron Hansen & Jim Shepard (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 98 Minutes
By Nicole Ackman
“Every morning, I wake up and I think that I never want to be far from you” is the sort of simple but poetic language that characterizes “The World to Come.” This melancholy period romance between two women in mid-nineteenth-century farmland is full of stolen moments and hidden joys. It is deftly directed by Mona Fastvold in her second film since “The Sleepwalker” in 2014. Written by Jim Shepard and Ron Hansen, it has the clarity and focus of a short story, likely because it is based on one written by Shepard.
The film opens on January 1, 1856, as Abigail (Katherine Waterston) remarks, “With little pride and less hope, we begin the new year.” Abigail is constantly writing in her diary where her entries provide the almost hypnotic voiceover for the film. The passage of time is marked by title cards showing the date in her handwriting. The film begins very slowly with cold and muted cinematography to match the rough winter.
Abigail and her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck) are distant from each other, though there are glimpses of camaraderie if not affection. Affleck gives a solid performance as the dull farmer who enjoys mechanics and can’t connect to his wife’s love of learning. The couple is still recovering from the death of their beloved daughter a few months prior who gave them a sense of purpose. Throughout the film, the threats inherent to the sort of farm life they are living — weather, illness, injury, fire — hang overhead. The precarity of life seems emphasized by the almost gray coloring and the somber tone of much of the film.
Both Abigail and the film itself start to come alive when she first catches a glimpse of the red-haired wife of the man leasing the nearby farm. Tally (Vanessa Kirby) and Finney (Christopher Abbott) have a lot of tension between them so she begins to spend more time at Abigail’s farm. The chemistry between Waterston and Kirby is fantastic and the film’s close-ups on Kirby in her first few scenes allow us to experience Abigail’s curious, longing looks.
As spring comes and the women become closer, the film literally becomes lighter and the title cards show the dates coming more rapidly. Tally is more spirited than the practical, reserved Abigail but both actresses give understated yet moving performances. Their bond soon transcends the relationships they have with their husbands and the film isn’t coy about portraying the physical side of their romance, particularly for a period piece.
In addition to a yearning romance as the women try to find a place for their relationship in their lives with their husbands, the film provides an intelligent commentary on the role of women during this time period. Abigail had intellectual aspirations and is devoted to her self-education, seemingly to keep her grief and boredom at bay. But both women are reminded of their household duties by their husbands, stuck in the lives they seemingly had little choice in. Their husbands’ different reactions to their friendship highlight that even if a man is kind rather than cruel, a woman still was trapped in her fate.
The film has a vintage look reminiscent of a Terrence Malick piece. There are moments of clever editing by Dávid Jancsó who helps the film succeed at remaining incredibly intimate while also showcasing the nature that surrounds the couples. The emotional, haunting score by Daniel Blumberg is beautiful but equally effective is the quietness of the intimate moments where the score isn’t there. While the film takes a while to thaw, once it does, “The World to Come” will beguile certain audiences just as Tally charms Abigail.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A beautifully melancholy story with moving performances, impressive cinematography and a haunting score.