There is a slowness to the pioneer setting of The World To Come that lends itself to the best parts of this film by director Mona Fastvold. As Abigail (Katherine Waterston) quietly narrates her daily journal, we follow her life through the day in and day out of living on the frontier. Married to Dyer (Casey Affleck) the two seem to have an amicable but fairly loveless relationship, and after suffering from a tragedy, the two become more distant.
In comes the fair and beautiful Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), who moves in as their closest neighbor alongside her husband, Finney (Christopher Abbott). The couples have their roles. Abigail is quiet, she dithers when it comes to work, preferring to write in her journal instead. Dyer might have been better-suited tinkering but is relegated to the difficulties of frontier-work. Tallie is friendly and strong-willed, instantly bonding with Abigail. And Finney is possessive, becoming obsessed with Tallie’s comings and goings as she grows closer and closer to Abigail.
As it goes, Abigail and Tallie fall in love. Of course, since it’s the 1800’s, this is not acceptable. Several outlets have already talked about the subgenre of Lesbian Period films, but Out Magazine actually listed out a checklist that a story must follow in order to get critical acclaim, wide release, and nomination for awards.
And yes, it is difficult to separate this clear formula with what is undeniably a beautifully shot and directed film. Fastvold paints a beautiful scene with muted tones and this is what stands out, despite the disappointments. The World To Come can repeat a tired formula, that seems to only end in bleak sadness and disappointment, but it can also be well-made. Waterston’s narration is perfectly lyrical as she acts as the narrator, her poetic writing emulating far more of her true self than her buttoned-down appearance. Kirby is enigmatic and charming as Tallie, especially as she and Abigail revolve and orbit around one another in their flirtations.
And while I will say that Affleck’s performance was emotional and perfectly repressed, it’s hard to forget that the actor has been sued for sexual harassment, and in a film that doesn’t shy away from violence against women in its third act, it’s even harder to ignore.
In the end, do the pros of The World To Come outweigh the cons? Not really. But for fans of the two leading actresses and a pioneer lesbian romance, this film presents as a pastoral entry.
This film review was based on the premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2021 and will be released by Bleeker Street this Friday, February 12, 2021. Photo by Vlad Cioplea | Courtesy of Sundance Institute