The World to Come, 2020.
Directed by Mona Fastvold.
Starring Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, Casey Affleck, and Christopher Abbott.
Somewhere along the mid-19th century American East Coast frontier, two neighbouring couples battle hardship and isolation, witnessed by a splendid yet testing landscape, challenging them both physically and psychologically.
Period gay romance has carved out quite the substantial niche for itself in the last few years, and as enticing as it is to see a filmmaker of Mona Fastvold’s (The Sleepwalker) singularity tackle the emerging “subgenre,” The World to Come‘s modest successes are more a testament to the terrific lead actresses than the oft-pat storytelling.
The year is 1856, the setting Upstate New York. Farmer’s wife Abigail (Katherine Waterston) is a shell of her former self following the diphtheria death of her young daughter. She’s now simply going through the daily motions of milking cows, cooking for her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck), and eking out a base living in an icy rural hellhole where the water’s so cold it freezes near-instantly.
She and Dyer attempt to fend off depression and make it through an increasingly sexless marriage, that is until spring sees the arrival of a couple renting a home nearby, Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and her husband Finney (Christopher Abbott).
A simmering frisson soon blooms between the two women, rousing the prospect of a more authentically felt and simply happy life elsewhere. But the demands of their husbands and the mores of the time are an ever-present threat to their forbidden romance.
Despite the heightened setting, The World to Come’s story of unspoken love feels stridently familiar, albeit shot through with an uncommon level of restraint and emotional availability from its focal cast members.
What helps separate this from other recent LGBTQ period films like Portrait of a Lady on Fire is its expository approach to character and feeling. Much of the film is narrated by Abigail, and while voiceover is so often derided for being a programmatic, even lazy way to convey a character’s point-of-view, the script – surprisingly penned by two men, co-writer Jim Shepard adapting his own short story – is so gorgeously literary in presentation that it quickly seduces.
Waterson’s ASMR-worthy V.O. renders the flowery dialogue profoundly sensual, particularly during her lustful, red-blooded early descriptions of Tallie’s beauty. It’s as if David Milch stepped off the Deadwood set and wrote a romance – sans that show’s penchant for anachronistic profanity, of course.
It’s a bit of a shame that the moment-to-moment storytelling isn’t quite so alluring, then. There’s little room left for reading between the lines here, and so the central narrative of two lesbian lovers struggling to get what they want in a man’s world feels fine but not really any more fresh or interesting than that. A third act turn of plot nearly threatens to detour into thriller territory, but it soon becomes clear that Fastvold has little interest in the possibility.
Yet even when at its least involving, Fastvold’s film is a ravishing one to drink in; the natural beauty of the landscapes belies the lived-in sense of desolation that soon enough announces itself. André Chemetoff’s impressionistic lensing is bolstered by a winning score from first-time movie composer Daniel Blumberg, which reaches its zenith during a sequence where Tallie is caught in a blizzard, set to a discordant, brassy motif that’s quite unlike anything else you’ll hear in the film or most others.
But this is a film to watch for its acting showcase above all else. Waterston, in one of her finest performances to date, is remarkable as a searing early picture of grief that transitions uneasily into longing – both for Tallie and for a brighter future. Kirby’s magnetic presence, as a sexually confident woman teasing out Abigail’s desires, again confirms her to be one of the most appealing rising stars of the moment.
Together, their sublime chemistry ensures as much sweetness as it does sex appeal; when Abigail tells Tallie, “you smell like a biscuit,” one might be tempted to cringe were the performances any less-honest, but here the line practically invites a swoon.
The men are, quite aptly, more subdued fixtures of the cast. While some may find Casey Affleck’s presence as both co-star and producer inherently troubling given his history, he is certainly well-cast as Abigail’s mumbling, passive-aggressive hubby. Fastvold contrasts him with Abbott’s Finney, a more strictly controlling and abusive man, even if the two are by some measure sides of the same coin.
One suspects many will take umbrage with the outcome of the story, which dares to flirt with flat-out silliness in its parting shot. For those fully on the fence it may be enough to turn them off The World to Come entirely, while others may simply accept its finale as the most inevitable consequence of the characters and their actions.
A red-blooded romance snakes through this otherwise bleakly chilly western, its predictable narrative elevated by strong work from Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.