Review: The World To Come

The World To Come (2021)
Director: Mona Fastvold

I’ve yet to see Vanessa Kirby on a big screen, but I know she’s a movie star. Over the past year of pandemic home viewing, she is the actor who has jumped off my living room TV. Whether she’s playing a young Princess Margaret (The Crown), a grieving American woman in contemporary Boston (Pieces of a Woman), or a foreign correspondent in 1930s Moscow (Mr. Jones), she is the actor who captivates you most with her resonant voice and direct gaze. She has done it again in The World to Come, bringing a much-needed liveliness to a film that sometimes felt claustrophobic and glum. 

Set in 1850s upstate New York, The World to Come is based on a Jim Shepard short story by the same title, and describes a frontier romance between two farm wives, Abigail and Tallie, who fall in love over the course of a lonely winter. The story is told from the point of view of Abigail (Katherine Waterson), a young mother who is grieving the loss of her only child to diphtheria. Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) is Abigail’s new neighbor, who stops by Abigail’s house for tea and engages her in honest and easygoing conversation—more so than Abigail’s husband, Dyer (Casey Affleck), who treats his sad wife with trepidation. As we learn more about Tallie, it becomes clear that she is in as much need of cheering up as Abigail. Her husband Finney (Christopher Abbot) is menacing and controlling, the kind of man who, in one awkward dinner between the two couples, serves dessert to everyone but his wife. 

Shepard’s short story unfolds over the course of a series of diary entries, penned by Abigail, and unfortunately, the screenplay, written by Shepard and Ron Hansen, relies on the diary to move the narrative forward with title cards mocked-up to look like handwritten diary entries. Voiceover is used extensively to convey Abigail’s thoughts and feelings, as well as her meal plans, daily chores, and observations of the weather. On the page, these entries are naturally poignant as Abigail juxtaposes quotidian details with restrained expression of the huge, aching sorrow she carries with her. It’s also interesting to read between the lines of Abigail’s entries to discover her burgeoning attraction to Tallie. But these literary devices do not serve a screenplay in the same way; there is no need to describe weather, farming chores, or food when we can see it, and a viewer doesn’t have to work as hard as a reader to excavate the story of a lesbian relationship. It’s obvious, just from the way Tallie shows off her long, curly hair in her first meeting with Abigail, that romance is afoot. Much of the sexual tension between the two women dissolves under the weight of Abigail’s voiceovers, which explain her continuing grief, farming troubles, and Tallie’s marital difficulties. Abigail’s slightly formal prose pervades the dialogue, too, with only Kirby able to give life to some of the more stilted sentiments.

It’s rare that I find a movie to be too slowly paced, but I wrestled with impatience as I peered into this gray, wintry world of mud and thinning snow. Director Mona Fastvold seems to be striving for period authenticity, sometimes to the detriment of the production and costume design. Scenes shot indoors are lit naturalistically with candlelight and oil lamps, and the characters wear dark, nondescript clothing, making it difficult to see them in their shadowy interiors. This difficulty may be a side effect of pandemic home viewing; I’ve heard people say the same thing about the interior scenes of First Cow, which were also shot in low light to mimic nineteenth century light sources. I was fortunate to see First Cow projected in the theaters where I could pick up on the subtlety of the color palette, so it’s possible that I would have a greater appreciation for André Chemetoff’s cinematography if I could see it on the big screen. But there was also something repetitive about Chemetoff’s compositions, which are mostly static, or else slow-moving dolly shots, with very few close-ups or handheld camerawork.

The staging of scenes was also monotonous, with characters mostly interacting indoors, seated at tables. One scene with the two women lounging under a tree was a breath of fresh air, but I wondered how they found time to lounge. These are farmer’s wives, furtively stealing time together while also scrambling to complete their daily chores. It would have been interesting to see them going about their daily tasks, and perhaps even working together in order to have time alone, later on, but we don’t see much housework, and very little of the fields or livestock. We’re meant to understand that Tallie and her husband are more well-to-do, with a hired hand who helps out during the day, but even these class differences between the two women seems like a missed opportunity. When Tallie brings gifts for Abigail’s birthday, they are mentioned in passing by Dyer; we don’t see what they are or what they mean to Abigail.

Katherine Waterson’s portrayal of a grieving mother was subdued and realistic, and something I appreciated in both the short story and the movie was the care that went into imagining the loneliness of frontier women who lose their children to illness. Infant and child mortality was much more common in the nineteenth century, but that doesn’t mean it was any easier for parents to bear. In a subtle way, The World To Come shows how religion fails to speak to women’s experiences and how even a small community of women—just two, coming together—can result in shared knowledge and sympathy. Kirby’s performance drew me in because she brought so much urgency to her conversations with Abigail. When she arrived in a scene, she seemed determined not only to cheer and comfort Abigail, but to cheer and comfort herself. I had the sense that, for her character, visiting Abigail was the one bright spot in her life, and she was going to inhabit it fully. She seemed to be in the moment, whereas the movie seemed to be in the past. 

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