Recently Hollywood has been fixated on depicting period romances between two white women. Despite a low number of films about queer women — which have an extremely long way to go in terms of representation and storytelling — this recent trend has resulted in tiresome tropes and noticeable patterns. Although the familiarity of the story is a mark against The World to Come, other elements of the movie make it into something thoroughly moving, even if it operates within the boundaries of storytelling that is all too familiar to the subjects it depicts.
Based on Jim Shepard’s 2017 short story of the same title, The World to Come is an intense and bleak telling of two couples surviving in the eighteenth-century East Coast. Supported by its gritty 16mm cinematography and underlying tense score, director Mona Fastvold is able to excavate an affecting tale out of a straightforward story, although the script itself is astonishing in its verses. Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby both deliver moving performances and despite their shortly shared screen time, their chemistry is able to sell the tender and tragic love story between these two women.
Abigail (Waterston) and her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck) are grieving over the loss of their child. From the opening cold, bare frames, Fastvold sets the grim and unforgiving tone of the atmosphere, representing the world these characters must exist within. When Abigail meets Tallie (Kirby), her pain and sadness grow smaller as the two form a connection. Tallie’s husband Finney (Christopher Abbott), however, is unhappy that his wife is ignoring her “wifely duties.” As Abigail and Tallie circle around each other, searching for ways to articulate their feelings towards one another, other factors constantly threaten the two women’s lives and happiness.
Living over the frames of the film is Abigail’s narration from her diary. This allows us to see her deepest thoughts, to feel the utter grief and loneliness she is experiencing after the death of her daughter. It also provides for beautiful, poetic statements when she forms her friendship with Tallie. Reading during many of the scenes, Waterston’s narration never feels cliche or overbearing, instead revealing her inner thoughts in a time when everyone is very outwardly reserved. Talley even comments on this in the film, stating “It’s been my experience that it’s not always those that show the least who actually feel the least.” The narration also is very well-written, representing how intelligent Abigail is. She spends her time reading and studying an atlas, in addition to her diligent diary writings. Her intelligence, however, is trapped within her duties as a wife, seemingly resulting in a waste of her talents. The film’s decision to feature her narration allows Abigail’s work to be heard and appreciated for the beauty that it is.
Combined with the narration, the weather also plays a huge role in the film when it comes to representing emotion. Starting in winter, with dead trees, barren land, and dangerous snowstorms, the weather matches Abigail’s current emotional state. It changes as she changes — lighter when she begins to open up to Tallie and desolate when they are apart. As the seasons change, the weather presents emotions differently. The searing heat of the summer creates a sickly atmosphere while Abigail and Tallie’s relationship enters dangerous terrain. While operating as an emotional device, the ever-changing weather landscape of the film also contributes to the feeling of dread that permeates every scene.
With such an intense atmosphere, The World to Come feels more like a thriller than a romance. There is the underlying feeling of danger in nearly every scene. This comes as a result of successful groundwork laid out by Fastvold’s worldbuilding. The ever-present menace appears to be the weather. Each snowstorm and change in temperature could mean death. Adding to this is Daniel Blumberg’s haunting score, which plays out under slow zooms and bare frames, hinting at an ugliness that is bound to arise. Obviously, Abigail and Tallie’s relationship also heightens the stakes. When they realize their feelings for one another, however, it isn’t the danger that floods their minds — it is pure joy, which was refreshing to see.
The World to Come may appear to be just another ravishing romance between women in corsets, but the result is far from it. Although the relationship acts as the center of the film from Abigail’s perspective as she works through her grief, what is most felt is the harsh conditions these people have to live under. It is a story of survival. Survival from the land, the elements, and from one’s own feelings. Mona Fastvold has crafted a beautiful, distinctive, and devastating film here. Feelings can be dangerous, especially in a place as harsh as this, but they can also be beautifully freeing.