Are period lesbian romances the new fad? The World to Come follows the festival circuit fanfare enjoyed by Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Ammonite. These three films put a new spin on the well-worn genre of the bodice ripper. They view the tight corset and heaving bosom through decidedly female gazes.
This tale of female friendship falls somewhat more in the Ammonite camp than the Portrait one. It might not get one hot and bothered the way Portrait set one on fire, but rewards as a film of repressed desires and quiet passion. Director Mona Fastvold unfolds a love story that is sedate and measured—an exquisitely crafted, study in loneliness and longing.
The World to Come gives the bodice ripper a frontier spin. Far from the castles with their cinched corsets, the film observes the barrenness of the American frontier. Abigail (Katherine Waterston) is a lonely wife of a homestead in upstate New York, 1850. Her husband, Dyer (Casey Affleck), is a bore. He’s all work and no play, as the hard life of ranch dictates. Abigail is also distant to whatever little affection he displays, having recently lost a child. She’s uncomfortable with the pain that intimacy invites.
What she needs is a woman’s touch. Enter Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) who arrives at a cabin down yonder with her equally ho-hum hubby Finney (Christopher Abbott). Tallie brightens the landscape with her shock of bountiful red hair. Its bountiful curls catch Abigail’s eye, offering the closest thing to the sun that radiates amid the dreary frontier. The natural lensing by André Chemetoff finds nary a glow of the romantic sunshine that often illuminates tales of the frontier.
The two women begin a natural friendship with opportunities for companionship running scarce. They don’t say much, having nearly forgotten the art of interaction with their dull husbands. But the silence yields to obligatory pining. By saying less, they say more with their unspoken desires.
The World to Come defines the women’s desire not so much by presence as by absence. As soon as Tallie leaves Abigail’s cabin, the latter finds herself weak and anxious. This is what passion feels like.
Abigail confesses her desires in a series of diary entries that mark the passage of time. Recounting her the cold winters and the thawing of her heart, these letters are somewhat on-the-nose exposition. Abigail isn’t much good around the house, but she’s great at pointing out the obvious.
The letters, on the other hand, compensate for Waterston’s dramatic limitations. Another actress might make the diaries redundant by conveying restrained longing and personal awakening introspectively. (Exhibit A: Kate Winslet, Exhibit B: Noémie Merlant.) Waterston, however, struggles with understated work and silent acting. Give her line and she can recite it capably. Give Abigail a moment of longing, however, and she falls flat.
Kirby, on the other hand, offers a masterful turn of simmering passion. If there’s acting you see and acting you don’t see, Kirby knows how to channel both dramatic energies. The World to Come jolts to life whenever Tallie appears. Perhaps this energy is by design as one woman is the object of the other’s affection. Everything about Abigail is drab and joyless, from her clothes to her comportment, while Tallie just lights up each scene. But it inadvertently makes the The World to Come a thrilling example of the X factor. Kirby just has a magnetic screen presence that few actors enjoy. As a follow-up to her explosive turn in Pieces of a Woman, her performance as Tallie speaks volumes through its restraint. The World to Come is further proof that Vanessa Kirby is one of the best actresses of her generation and that Katherine Waterston is one of the most boring ones.
Love and Death
The film inevitably veers towards tragedy as Dyer and Finney grow jealous of the attention their wives devote elsewhere. Both Affleck and Abbott play the part of the jealous, dangerously suspicious husbands well—particularly Abbott. They provide escalating foils to the women’s desires, gradually intervening in the relationship as Abigail and Tallie come closer to realising it. The World to Come gives its sharpest evocation of love in a moment of brutal tragedy.
On one hand, it’s another queer heartbreak. On the other, it’s honest in that, for their time, the stories of Abigails and Tallies probably ended tragically. The World to Come wouldn’t be a bodice ripper if everything worked out nicely in the end.
The World to Come is now available on VOD
Reviewed at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.