Chemistry burns between two farm-dwelling wives in The World to Come, a sumptuous frontier romance starring Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby. Katie Heyes reviews.
Period dramas are becoming ever more popular, with Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, Ammonite, Handmaiden, Elisa & Marcela, Vita & Virginia, Carol and many more sweeping onto our cinema screens in recent years. Sometimes, by becoming so engrossed in the lavish costumes and tender love affairs, we’re too swept up in idyllic fantasy to fully understand the hardships of the era the film is set in. While The World to Come certainly excels in presenting a sweet summer romance with sublime chemistry, the lovers are trapped in a misogynistic world, making their love story all the more heart-breaking.
The World to Come is the second feature film from Norwegian director Mona Fastvold, based on the original collection of stories by Jim Shepard. Much like its literary counterpart, we are initially introduced to our protagonist Abigail (Katherine Waterston): a shy and reserved farmer’s housewife. Through the beautifully worded narration of her diary entries, we delve into her deepest feelings and past turmoil. She is mourning the loss of her child, while experiencing increasing financial strain on the farm. However, as her eyes lock with Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), another disillusioned wife, they instantly form a connection.
With this new found happiness, Abigail and Tallie develop a lively friendship which absolves their mutual feelings of isolation, eventually evolving into a passionate and tender romantic affair. However, in such an oppressive society, where the physical setting and inherent sexism reigns supreme, their love is threatened at every turn.
Although the premise of ‘forbidden love’ is certainly not unique, in cinema as a whole or even in the queer period romance genre, the chemistry between Abigail and Tallie is where this film truly shines. We get to witness every stage of their blossoming passion, from their adorable nervous laughter to their many affectionate glances. Surprisingly, the clichéd nature of their cutesy embraces never deters from the sincerity.
There can never be love affair, without scorned lovers, and the couple’s husbands, Christopher Abbott and Casey Affleck, each bring their own unique qualities to the role. While Dyer (Affleck) embodies the wholehearted mediocrity of Charles Bovary in Flaubert’s classic novel, Finney (Abbott) emulates something more akin to the detestable, brutish nature of Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire. While the former’s naivety makes him pitiable yet altogether harmless, Abbott’s performance becomes progressively more unsettling. Near the films denouement, hatred for his character rises like bile, contrasting Affleck’s, where audiences have gradually mellowed due to his evident rooting for his wife’s happiness. While there are no powerhouse acting moments, the actors are never wooden. Each adopts an element of realism to their performance, making the piece all the more believable.
The World to Come flexes its visual craftsmanship, wonderfully integrating elements of pathetic fallacy with its eerie and euphoric soundtrack. The film alternates from a bleak and depressing winter to a warm and vivacious summer, underscoring Abigail’s emotional journey from feeling forlorn to ecstatic as she falls deeper and deeper in love. Additional elements of uncomfortable realism are exposed when we see violent scenes of home slaughter, creating an authentic display of 19th-century farm life. When the lovers embrace for the first time, the melodies in Daniel Blumberg’s score are so entrancing, we can’t help but swoon at their burgeoning passion.
Despite how spectacular the chemistry is, the film is let down in its structure. There are many scenes that, in retrospect, seem randomly inserted, such as a sudden house fire. At first glance, you presume this forebodes an intense climax acting as our protagonist’s act of vengeance. However, when it doesn’t unfold, we are met with a wave of confusion and consequent unfulfilment. Some have argued that The World To Come conforms to the damaging ‘bury your gays‘ trope, with references to God as the ‘supreme disposer.’ While these elements don’t sit right with me, the harsh and stifling setting means that these harmful stereotypes are necessary to depict the reprehensive homophobia of this time period. As such, the brutal injustice is reinforced by the tear-jerker ending.
But rather than letting this bereavement playout, it is interrupted by a euphoric flashback depicting snippets of sex scenes between Abigail and Tallie. Perhaps if the director had chosen to included these intimate scenes earlier, as their love affair began, they would have had a more poignant impact. Instead, it perhaps deprives us of the raw evocative grief we should or could be feeling at the film’s end.
While The World to Come may at times feel a little structurally strange, there is no denying its captivating love story. Whether you’re looking for a cute little period romance to bring back nostalgic memories of a summer fling or, a fully immersive experience in a different era, this is a film that can do both.
Words by Katie Heyes
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