The World to Come

In mid nineteenth century upstate New York, Abigail (Katherine Waterston) leads a difficult life sheep farming with her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck).  ‘I am my grief,’ she tells us as we learn how they lost their only child, Nellie (Karina Ziana Gherasim), to diphtheria and witness Abigail reject Dyer’s sexual overtures, something she tells us were infrequent anyway, as ‘too soon.’  Then one day as Dyer drives their carriage through town, Abigail catches the eye of her new neighbor Tallie (Vanessa Kirby, "Pieces of a Woman") and suddenly life is once more worth living in “The World to Come.”

Laura's Review: B-

Period lesbian love stories have been a thing of late, kicked off by Todd Haynes’ “Carol” and continuing with such titles as “Professor Marston & the Wonder Women” and the recent “Ammonite.”  There is also a whiff here of the women of 2018’s horror film “The Wind” with their pioneering hardships, struggles to bear children and the sinister implications of a bloody rag.  Working with a script by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, Norwegian director Mona Fastvold presents us with two diametrically opposed couples in an authentic period production, but there’s something too modern about Kirby’s character that always feels false, as if Fastvold has confused modernity with sophistication.

Thankfully, the movie belongs to Waterston, whose narration sounds like a voice from the past reading from a period memoir with eloquent elegance.  After an opening featuring cold, snow and ice, everything seems to melt when the darkly pretty Abigail spies the fair, red-headed Tallie, who walks over one day to escape the slaughter of her husband Finney’s (Christopher Abbott) hog farm.  ‘She saw me noticing her hair and admitted she’d been vain about it since she was a child,’ Abigail tells us as the two women drink tea, rhapsodizing about the ‘pink and violet blush’ that glows beneath Tallie’s skin in the winter light.  It’s not too long before shared confidences and pinky finger clasps bloom into unrestrained passion.

Over the course of time, during which the wealthier Tallie and Finney trade dinner dates with Abigail and Dyer, Dyer, who has been accepted back into his wife’s embrace, recognizes the effect Tallie has on her and attempts to grapple with it by communicating and empathizing more.  But Finney, whom Tallie constantly denigrates, begins to unnerve us, Abbott suggesting a dark psychological streak.  One day Abigail learns they’ve up and left and she becomes so obsessed about Tallie’s well being, Dyer has to hop aboard their carriage or risk being left behind when she goes to find her.

Waterston is quite compelling here, even inviting sympathy for Affleck’s character as he attempts to woo his wife, recognizing he’s losing something he never really had.  And yet while we can believe the passion Waterston and Kirby generate, Kirby’s accent, intonation, words and even wardrobe (costume design by Luminita Lungu) suggest a woman of another world, another time.  Perhaps this was intentional, but as executed it pulls one out of the spell Fastvold’s attempting to cast.  Abbott continues to exhibit range, his Finney of the time, domineering and disturbing. 

The production which begins in a frozen landscape shifts to spring and summer and Fastvold merges the two for a climax featuring fiery fantasy and icy reality.  If some aspects of her film are too modern, Daniel Blumberg’s innovative score, featuring deep throated horns and shrill flutes, is not one of them, a welcome change from period cliché.

Robin's Review: B

Upstate New York, 1 January 1856, and a hardworking farming couple welcome in the new year. But, it is a harsh and lonely life and Abigail (Jennifer Waterson) toils through it all without complaint. Then, new neighbors, Tallie and Finney, rent a nearby property and the women, kindred spirits,  grow close in “The World to Come.”

If you want to get a feel for just how tough life was in settling the country over 150 years, “The World to Come” fits that bill. Director Mona Fastvold, with co-writers Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, begins her tale with the coming of the new year and Abigail dutifully making the first entry of that year in her diary/ledger. Throughout the coming 12 months, Abigail narrates her writings in voiceover that effectively lets you follow the events of the year.

The focus of the story is on Abigail and Jennifer Waterson serves her stoic and strong character well. The story, beginning, as said, with day one of the year, uses the calendar to provide the timeframe for the events that transpire. And those events, the Great Storm, severe cold, deprivation and survival make for a desolate existence with few if any distractions. Then, Tallie and Finney arrive in the community and Abigail notices the beautiful red-headed newcomer. Soon, Tallie comes by and a new friendship develops between the two strong femme spirits. For Abigail, Tallie is an exotic, almost ethereal figure, and a welcome relief to the harshness of daily existence. For Tallie, Abigail is her intellectual equal.

I will not go into that relationship but let me say that there is a modern vibe to the bond between Abigail and Tallie. In this story, the women are the strong and steady ones and the men, personified by Dyer and Finney, are definitely not the strong ones, at least mentally and emotionally. The feminist spin works quite well, though, with the chemistry between the women.

Mona Fastvold, in her second helming, tells a tale of a pioneer woman whose hopes and dreams extend beyond her hard life, but with a 21st century feminist sensibility.


Bleecker Street opens "The World to Come" in theaters on 2/12/2021 and on VOD on 3/2/2021.