Part of Sundance 2021’s Spotlight program, director Mona Fastvold’s Queer Lion-winning The World to Come, adapted from a short story by Jim Shepard, immerses us in the bleak daily life of a contemplative mid-nineteenth century woman, Abigail (Katherine Waterston), living on the stark, unforgiving Northeastern frontier with her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck). The film opens “with little pride and less hope” on New Year’s Day in 1856, around three months after the couple have lost their only child to illness. Abigail’s grief is matched by the harsh winter and beautifully expressed by André Chemetoff’s moody, almost monochromatic cinematography in the opening section of the film. Their sombre, monotonous lives are interrupted by the arrival of a couple renting a nearby property to use as a pig farm, the austere Finney (Christopher Abbott) and his cordial wife Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), whom Abigail is immediately intrigued by, and although it’s not a word she would use, quickly smitten with.
As the two women spend increasingly more time with one another the frost thaws and the film’s colour palette warms with spring’s arrival. Following the death of their young daughter, Abigail has been turning down Dyer’s advances (there is literal ice in their bedroom), while the bitter, sometimes outright spiteful Finney complains that Tallie is not fulfilling her wifely duties and resents that she has not yet borne him a child. Meanwhile Abigail struggles to articulate what her new female companion means to her, but their mutual attraction to one another is palpable and by the time summer arrives the two women begin to express their devotion physically (although we only see the sex scenes in a montage flashback later on in the film). Fastvold, however, creates an atmosphere of such tension and anticipation, and the chemistry between the actors is such, that even the women’s fingers gently touching for the first time is filled with searing passion.
While Dyer uses his ledger to keep the accounts on their farm, Abigail uses hers as a personal journal to express her feelings, the contents of which are relayed to us by voice over throughout. Waterston’s voice is beautifully expressive and Abigail’s writing, particularly given the period stylings, has a lyrical, almost melodic quality to it. Although at times it feels in danger of being over used, in that it’s often not telling us anything we couldn’t deduce for ourselves from the subtle, nuanced lead performances, the voice over does keep the narrative’s perspective focused, bring an intimacy that’s often lacking in period films and heightens the sense of Abigail’s isolation. There are also moments of effective contrast where we learn what Abigail is thinking, such as the questions deeply troubling her when Tallie is caught in a snowstorm, and what she actually says out loud to Dyer about animal feed supplies. The voice over also deepens the film’s poignant themes of unfulfilled hopes and expectations, being at the mercy of nature, and examining women’s place in the world, filled with duties, and its lack of progression since the arrival of Abigail’s ancestors on the frontier. Fastvold wisely uses composer Daniel Blumberg’s exquisitely unsettling, yearning score sparingly and there’s a gorgeous, ethereal and heartbreakingly mournful song on the end credits performed by Josephine Foster that’s likely to have you weeping as you take in what’s happened over the the last 140 minutes. The power of The World to Come creeps up on you, doesn’t let go once it takes hold, and cuts deep.
By James Kleinmann
The World to Come premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on Tuesday February 2nd and opens in US theaters on Friday February 12th followed by a digital release on Tuesday March 2nd 2021.