The World to Come is a sly and emotional romantic drama that moves thanks to the power of a quartet of splendid performances at its heart.
The World to Come is set in 1856, a year of immense, yet understated, impact in American history. It’s the year that sees James Buchanan defeat Millard Filmore for the presidency while the first credible Republican – then largely a single-issue anti-slavery party – enters the picture. We see open hostility in the country as pro and anti-slavery forces erupt into armed conflict. It’s a year that saw one Southern Senator beat a Northern colleague with a cane in the halls of the United States Senate with such savagery that the latter spent most of the rest of the decade in recovery. The attacker, Preston Brooks, became a hero in the South. It’s a time that echoes the ennui and unsettlement that seems to have permeated our current situation.
This is a long-winded intro to get to a discussion of a film about a secret sapphic romance, but, viewed through the lens of the cultural and economic turmoil of the era, it seems appropriate. Much as the drama to come reflects it, the film’s own title, The World to Come, serves as a mission statement for a story attempting to grapple with a pivotal moment in time. While our characters, here, defy easy encapsulation into allegorical Know-Nothings or Democrats, the filmmakers are clearly attempting to tap a particular moment of upheaval and tension. And in ways both subtle and overt, I think they’re resoundingly successful at capturing a moment which has become sadly relevant to our times.
The tensions, here – and don’t worry, we’ll get to the love story – simmer with economic strife and resentment. As she did in her screenplay for the wonderful prison drama The Mustang, director Mona Fastvold shows a keen insight into the human beings beneath cultural tension. Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) and Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice) play a couple attempting to grind out a rural living after the death of their daughter. The melancholy in their marriage appears to have grown into a near perpetual cloud that hangs over their farm. Both performers give masterfully internalized performances. Their individual and collective loneliness never manifesting in outward hostility, rather it presents in a withering sense of two people who are never lonelier than when they share a room together.
The entry into the picture of a new couple, renting a local nicer farm, shifts the frame. The new couple – Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman, The Crown) and Christopher Abbott (On the Count of Three) – comes from greater means and to them farming comes easier, thanks to the help of a hired hand. For one couple, the purchase of an almanac is an expense that requires months of saving and for the other it is no thing. It is the entry of Kirby’s Tallie into the picture that gives Waterston’s Abigail her first burst of life since the death of her daughter.
It is when Tallie makes the walk from her farm to Abigail’s to meet her neighbor that the film is injected with delicate light. Like the first embers of light on a pyre, the pair’s first conversation sees awkwardness and chemistry in equal measures. It’s clear they give each other a companionship their husbands cannot, and certainly the actresses have a spark, but they also show moments of escape from the tiring reality of living their days based on their husbands’ whims. When they depart, Abigail notes how the meeting made her day and Tallie responds “how pleasant and uncommon it is to make someone’s day.” It’s a poetic response, but one that Kirby laces with just enough flirtation to make what’s to come all the more clear.
And, of course, the two soon take to spending more and more time together. Their first kiss – captured in an unshowy one-er – is a stirring moment of furtive intimacy. In their romance, Abigail finds the salve for the loneliness she’s felt in the wake of tragedy, and Tallie the outlet from her marriage to the sort of man who counts her hours outside the house. As it must be, eventually circumstances conspire to keep the couple apart. It is those economic tensions I’ve discussed that make it all the more upsetting when Abigail purchases a dress to impress Tallie, and Tallie is never once able to acknowledge it.
I have a few quibbles, from a narration that nearly overwhelms at times to pacing that’s probably best described as languid. That said, there are four truly excellent performances here, especially from Waterston and Kirby. It’s a moving, smart story, and it’s well worth your time.
The World to Come premiered online, at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, on February 1, 2021, and will be released by Bleecker Street theatrically on February 12 and on Digital Platforms on March 2.
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