Released: Tuesday, March 2, 2021 (VOD)
👀 Sundance 2021 Premiere
Written by: Jim Shepard; Ron Hansen
Directed by: Mona Fastvold
Starring: Katherine Waterston; Vanessa Kirby; Christopher Abbot; Casey Affleck
Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come, a beguiling romance set on the American frontier, is often literally perched on the edge of light and dark. Though its many contrasts are obvious they’re not always literal. This is a love story set in austere times yet delivered in a rather lyrical way, both through the language of its characters and the lens of André Chemetoff, whose rugged landscape photography is well-matched to the material.
The World to Come is an adaptation of a short story by Jim Shepard which tells of a clandestine relationship between two neglected wives and how their mutual attraction comes to threaten the patriarchal order in two households. In bringing it to the screen Fastvold prioritizes the characters and a gritty realism over groundbreaking storytelling. The resulting film, which uses a female perspective to explore its themes, certainly plots familiar footsteps. Yet with Fastvold’s detail-oriented approach and exceptional performances all around it remains throughout an engrossing and often tense affair.
A slow vertical pan down through the trees lands us on a farmstead somewhere in upstate New York circa the mid-1850s. Life here in this seclusion, where mail is delivered on horseback, on the outside looks quaint and peaceful. Fastvold wastes little time in ripping down that idyllic veil and apprising us to the immense challenges of settler life. What strikes you right away — beyond the silence — is the tedium (and amount!) of manual labor. However the setting is crucial in more ways than a convincing mise-en-scène, the central conflict far more complex than the physical.
Dyer (Casey Affleck) and Abigail (Katherine Waterston) are a humble farming couple who have suffered a tragedy on top of an apocalyptic winter that has wiped out nearly all their food. It does not take long to notice the lack of joie de vivre here. Little else seems to be shared beyond the toiling, the couple communicating with all the intimacy of complete strangers — brought together not as a match made in heaven but as a partnership of utility. Affleck’s Dyer may as well be on the moon emotionally as a devoutly pragmatic man who has known nothing but hard work and strife. It’s a very good performance that will catch you by surprise with its pitifulness and yet still have you questioning whether feeling pity is appropriate.
Abigail, on the other hand, is an intellectual who has become jaded with her rather plain existence. She’s realized through an arguably career-best Waterston whose soft-spoken mannerisms are most often heard in voice-over. In a rare example of narration actually contributing to the story rather than feeling like an unnecessary layer, Waterston reads entries from Abigail’s diary, largely a colorless record of the slow decline of a marriage that never seemed happy to begin with, as well as her own mounting frustration with her station as a housewife. Aside from establishing a crucial point of view these brief moments of introspection intimately connect us with the character in a way that makes us not observers but rather acquaintances.
Following a change of seasons — and a cacophonous storm sequence that remains the movie’s most vivid — those diary entries become ever more a testimony to what has been missing, or how much has been lying dormant under a façade of submissiveness. The arrival of spring brings with it a pair of fresh new faces in Finney (Christopher Abbott) and his wife Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), a well-to-do couple who move into a nearby (well, near-distant) farmstead. The free-spirited, enviably outspoken Tallie has an immediate affect on passive Abigail.
What begins as a neighborly gesture — donated fruit for a cobbler, for instance — soon turns into long afternoons spent under shady trees and entangled in philosophical conversation. It’s not long before the menial and the mundane are being forgotten, replaced by meaningful moments. A trend, of course, that does not go unnoticed by the men. The strength of the script, provided by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, is in subtlety and nuance even if the developments are mostly foreseeable. Affleck’s enigmatic to the bitter end, his masterful body language telling a story both of irrevocable change and permanent resignation. Abbott, on the other hand, isn’t as fortunate, playing an obvious cad who is easy to boo from the get-go.
Quite obviously though it is the women to whom The World to Come truly belongs. Kirby’s presence charges the scene with exciting energy, and with her waterfall of ginger hair she makes for a wonderful muse for Chemetoff’s camera. Waterston captures demureness in a way that’s equal parts charming and crushing. Together, and despite their different backgrounds, these leading frontier ladies have the kind of chemistry that keeps you utterly invested despite the misery that encroaches on all sides.
Beautiful and bleak in equal measure, Fastvold’s period romance feels much more like a snippet of reality than a Movie Production. Prior to the Sundance screening* she described the shoot being challenging. That’s something that comes across in the texture of the film. The world feels entirely lived in, authentic and with no traditional script-y exit doors in sight. The mood is undeniably heavy and somber, perhaps trending more towards the dark than the light. But that makes the oases of comfort and warmth, however fleeting, such a delightful contrast.
* This film had its world premier at the 77th Venice International Film Festival on September 6, 2020, where it won the Queer Lion award for best LGBTQ+ themed film at the festival. it went on to screen in competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Moral of the Story: The film’s moral resolution may not be to every audience member’s satisfaction, and the themes of physical/emotional isolation and patriarchal oppression may be familiar but its the lack of force and politicization in conveying those ideas that make The World to Come an even more attractive period piece.
Running Time: 105 mins.
Quoted: “Meeting you has made my day.”
“Oh, how pleasant and uncommon it is to make someone’s day.”
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Photo credits: imdb.com; Sundance Institute/photo by Vlad Cioplea