The World to Come, 2021.
Directed by Mona Fastvold.
Starring Vanessa Kirby, Katherine Waterston, Casey Affleck, Christopher Abbott, Andreea Vasile, and Karina Ziana Gherasim.
Somewhere along the mid-19th century American East Coast frontier, two neighboring couples battle hardship and isolation, witnessed by a splendid yet testing landscape, challenging them both physically and psychologically.
It’s fitting that The World to Come opens during a bitter 19th-century winter considering the narrative itself is just as emotionally cold. That’s also the point, as director Mona Fastvold (with a screenplay from Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard) shows us the lives of two rural farm couples that are more than just routine and unfulfilling, it sucks the life out of the women they have married. Ambition has been squashed, dreams crushed, a knowledgeable and inquisitive mind has been limited to the imagination (expressed through heavy narration, and most likely too much for the film’s alone good); the characters are as distant in their own lives as we are watching them.
To be fair, those are not the only reasons Abigail (Katherine Waterston, effectively nuanced and emotionally restrained) is locked into a depression. That aforementioned nasty season tragically gave her young daughter diphtheria, taking her life. She is also not getting the best consolation from her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck), who can’t even grasp something as simple as letting his wife take advantage of her mind and purchase a world Atlas with her own money, let alone understand her emotions. All he can think to do is make poorly timed attempts at conceiving another child while burying himself in his work and farm ledger.
A few months removed from the loss, a new couple rents out a neighboring farm with the free-spirited Tallie (Vanessa Kirby, turning in a soft performance complementary to Katherine Waterston’s solid work) quickly bonding with Abigail over the shared frustration over their lives, whether it’s the mundane nature of it all, the internal pain of isolation and loneliness, and in the case of Tallie, a religiously devout and fairly mentally abusive husband with temperamental issues played by Christopher Abbott. The contrast is fascinating since there’s a clear gap in human decency between the two, but however marginally better Dyer happens to be, his wife is also in the same state of emptiness and longing for more.
Nevertheless, the seasons begin to change to something warmer as the friendship continues to develop, naturally transitioning into something intimate. Environment and scenery serving as a vessel to convey mood are wonderful, but the photography on display from André Chemetoff is crucial to the effectiveness of that component. The visuals are as lyrical as the overlaying thoughts from Abigail, who was both understanding new feelings and remarks on certain grimy facts of yesteryear such as women being forced to marry young and keep up the morale of the household. As The World to Come hits its dramatic stride those monologues are definitely more impactful, although plenty of times it’s an intrusion on basking in the atmosphere, tone, and subtle performances.
The comparisons to Portrait of a Lady on Fire are inevitable, and in some cases unwarranted given The World to Come has a different approach to its third act that is heartbreaking and devastating in another way, but it’s easy to imagine a stronger piece of cinema that is more confident in itself to cut down on the narration (for clarification, co-writer Jim Shepard also wrote the short story that the film is based on). It’s still a more compelling film than Ammonite without feeling the need to resort to cheap and manipulative softcore porn grounded in male gaze and not characterization to showcase the blossoming love at the center of the story, wisely saving the sex to be used in a clever way with thoughtful editing and purpose.
Again, while The World to Come has a path of its own and strengths unique to itself, the overabundance of narration and emotional distance often suppress engagement. Not a single favor is done from its place in time as another period piece forbidden romance too soon following a landmark achievement that accomplished something similar. Even if that movie didn’t exist, there are some character details left to be desired here. Still, the shot selection, progression of seasons, poetic performances, thematic messaging, and affecting downer of an ending overcome some structural mistakes.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com