Review: The World to Come

Director: Mona Fastvold

Stars: Vanessa Kirby, Katherine Waterston, Christopher Abbott

Like many women of her generation, Abigail (Katherine Waterston) has compartmentalised her wit, intelligence and ambition and accepted the hardened, ring-fenced existence of a farmer’s wife. It is 1856 and Schoharie County, New York. A harsh winter causes much suffering for Abigail as diphtheria robs her of her only daughter. Come the deep colds of the following February, her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck) has begun making advances to have another child. A replacement. But Abigail rebuffs him, telling him it is too soon.

It is, perhaps, but that isn’t the extent of her reason for quelling Dyer in the bedroom. New to their fledgling settlement are another married couple; Finney (Christopher Abbott) and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby). Abigail first spies Tallie from afar on a church-going Sunday and though her anxieties make her appear outwardly meek, inside her blood is boiling. A mutual sexual attraction is immediately understood if not articulated. The two become firm friends and, while adult female companionship is a rare gift for both of them, there is always something extra in the air between them. The stage is set for Mona Fastvold’s period melodrama.

Shot on 16mm with Romania doubling for New York and period-specific sets constructed by Jean-Vincent Puzos, The World to Come has an extremely giving earthen quality to it, with the coarseness of farm life complimented handsomely by the film’s rich, grainy texture. With it’s first act told over the duration of a long hard winter and given its lesbian period drama pedigree, its hard not to lump it in with the bitter cold of Francis Lee’s gruff and frosty Ammonite.

Like that film, The World to Come trades in stifled stalemates, though here these are chiefly thanks to the domineering men that cast shade on the sexual yearning of these women. Dyer isn’t so much villainous as he is weary, but Finney, with his talk of husbands poisoning troublesome wives, causes much concern should the women be discovered.

First, though, they must discover each other, and Fastvold ekes out their burgeoning romance carefully. Once arrived upon she favours suggestion. We’ll come upon Abigail and Tallie some way through an afternoon together, and Fastvold will leave it up to us to decide quite what we’ve missed. This coyness breeds a respectful aura of intimacy.

All four main players are excellent (annoyingly so when it comes to Affleck) but the most valued contributions here feel as though they come from cinematographer André Chemetoff and from Daniel Blumberg, whose score is one of the year’s most surprising. Where one might expect the picking of a guitar or bango to evoke a rural setting, Blumberg favours woodwinds and – during an exceptionally realised blizzard – a saxophone from which shards of sound blurt icily amid the bitter action. Chemetoff, for his part, uses natural light to create extremes of warmth and cold to compliment the moods of these characters. Fastvold has the reigns of all of it, and The World to Come is a successfully realised vision.

There are a couple of significant howevers, however.

It is apt for Abigail to narrate much of the film, as her character lives vibrantly in her mind, with a fondness and talent for the written word. The narration from Waterston is delivered well, but often feels over-indulgent. The story is based on a novella by Jim Shepard who also helped with the screenplay, and it can feel as though he isn’t cruel enough with his own material. The World to Come sometimes says quite a bit more than it perhaps needs to.

And then there is the broader disappointment at the ultimate turn this story takes. It isn’t much surprising that separation and heartbreak are on the cards for these two women (especially given the realities of 19th century America) but – as with Ammonite and so many lesbian stories brought to the screen over the years – that The World to Come should document thwarted love, misery and worse is a sharp reminder of how rarely we’re afforded tales of joy. That these stories end with the bittersweet doesn’t make them weak by design (the almighty Portrait of a Lady on Fire ends in compromise, don’t forget), but The World to Come is another for the pile where lesbian women must endure suffering for the sake of our cultural nourishment.

But that is the world Mona Fastvold’s story comes from. It is sadly truer of its time than the alternative. At least, so far as we are keenly made aware.

But more worrying – and this may not have been the intention – is the suggestion made by the final scene that lesbians should seek solace in their imaginations; that only in the realm of fantasy can the heart’s desire be fulfilled and that this should be viewed as a comfort. The Abigail we meet at the start of The World to Come has already compromised enough. That the woman we leave has only daydreams to sustain her – and is thankful for them – is a tragedy that comes to hurt as much as anything else that happens here. I loved a great many things about this film – even in spite of Casey Affleck (I choose to believe his accusers) – but this last item ends it on a sour note that lingers.

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