“Fair and very cold” are the first words spoken in Abigail’s (Katherine Waterson) mellow voiceover. A shy, introverted farmer’s wife in Schoharie County, New York, she writes in her journal of her struggling faith since the death of her daughter: “I no longer derive comfort from the thought of a better world to come.” It’s a line that gives Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come its contemplative spirit and its title, as it expands upon it through the film’s month-spanning story: At first Abigail may be speaking of the afterlife, though as an exhilarating new love is denied to her by the ruling patriarchy, it seems she’s looking to a liberated world far ahead of her modest existence in 1856. As Abigail finds her soulmate in another woman, fellow unhappy farm wife Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), and the intensely moving romance that ensues and releases in the imaginative freedom of their desires, even as fate — and a man — conspire against their union.
Written by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard (the latter of whom is adapting his own short story), The World to Come structures itself around the dates of Abigail’s diary entries, opening on New Year’s day, following an evidently not-so-festive season. It’s been some months since her and her husband Dyer’s (Casey Affleck) daughter died of diphtheria, and both of them have settled into a grief-smothering routine of constant labor. In her words, she anticipates the new year “with little pride and less hope.” Fastvold leans her film into the measured vernacular and daily routine of their mud-stained 19th-century lives, finding a satisfying kinship between the hard, gradual blossoming of its chosen landscape and the subtle, formally expressive visual language that her and cinematographer André Chemetoff deliver; the latter of whom supplements the mood with vividly frost-bitten and autumnal tableaus that at times look as if they were etched in glass.
As decent a husband as Dyer is, he and Abigail still have their philosophical differences, which are cleverly described by the different ways they approach the written word. For Dyer, it’s useful as a record of bills or household expenses, the income and outgoing that represents his mark upon the world. But for Abigail, it is her mark upon, less a record of what she has done in her life than the thing itself, a creative expression of all she has thought and felt. Dyer is a ledger; Abigail, a journal. The quiet grief of their neat wooden home is disturbed one day by the arrival of new neighbors, Tallie and her husband Finney (Christopher Abbott). It’s a disturbance Abigail quickly comes to cherish, and as Tallie visits increasingly frequently while Dyer is not around, Abigail’s diary entries becomes increasingly lovelorn until one day Tallie, the more upfront of the two, makes a declaration and their affair begins in full. Thankfully, although they keep it a secret out of necessity, neither woman feels an ounce of being ashamed of their love. Neither feels rocked by the moral strictures of the day, neither feels the need to struggle against the sweetness of their union.
In recent years we’ve seen a fair share of period lesbian romances, from Carol to Portrait of a Lady on Fire to Ammonite, yet The World to Come differs from them all. While many often carry some restraint, Fastvold’s film is so withholding that the characters of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, for instance, look as if they were automating their emotions. This film is more jabbing and elliptical instead of lush and symphonic; classical where some of its predecessors have thrummed with a contemporary feel. Abigail and Tallie are even seldomly onscreen together, and only in hindsight do you appreciate how charged the space between them is when they were.
Fastvold stages all of this at an unfussy remove, with the fuzzy vibrations of the 16mm hinting at an energy invisible to Abigail and Tallie’s husbands. And Fastvold turns down any possible spectacle that might come from the sight of famous actresses enacting a same-sex affair. The World to Come is as compelled by thought as Portrait of a Lady on Fire was by gaze, and Abigail’s journal entries secure her emotions in the one place where she’s able to keep them safely. Fastvold, also, doesn’t resist the obviousness of her film’s seasonal metaphors, yet never overplays them: This is a film as attuned to incremental shifts in light and landscape (Romania’s, in fact, beautifully filling in for upstate New York here) as the ebb and flow of a character’s interior joy. (Which all is as well helped by the woodwind breeze of Daniel Blumberg’s enchanting score.)
The World to Come is a movie that takes what would conventionally be the most pivotal of moments and folds them into the margins; each scene begins with the aforementioned diary dates scrawled across the screen, and it isn’t until the end of the movie that you realize how much Abigail kept hidden from us. It’s enough to know that she has access to it, and always will, but the pinch of histrionics that are displayed near the end instead aren’t fully helpful; seen in the thin gruel that the Finney character is relegated towards, which looks out of place in a film where everyone else gets to play so many layers (even Affleck, who gives Dyer some heart-aching dimension). In the end, though, The World to Come is about the things we remember, and not the ones so easy to forget. “I hold our friendship and study it as if it were the incomplete map of our escape,” Abigail writes of her bond with Tallie. Whether or not she ever finds her way free, the first half of 1856 will linger in Abigail’s mind like all of the best love stories do, her thoughts and memories rearranged into forest trails that forever lead back to that connection found in isolation. Written through faces unaccustomed to smiles, The World to Come is a textural swim of a kerosene ache searching for warmth; a lonesome, lyrical call for solace amongst the bleakness.
The World to Come screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. The film will be released into Select Theaters on February 12 and VOD on March 2.