Review: ‘The World to Come’

With a rustically poetic voice-over and an eye for the harshness of the western frontier (both exterior and interior), Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come brilliantly charts the relationship that blossoms between two women in a time not known for this type of gentle friendship. It’s a film that situates itself in mid 19th century New York, but the feelings of yearning and immediate attraction are universal, made all the more heartbreaking by the tremendous performances of Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby.

Coming into each other’s orbit when Tallie (Kirby) and her emotionally constipated husband (Christopher Abbott) move close to the farm of equally disconsolate Abigail (Waterston), the two women strike up a friendship. Tallie senses something sad in Abigail, still reeling from the death of her young daughter the previous fall. As the lilting voice-over of Abigail tells us while diligently recording her thoughts in a diary, there’s not much love between her own husband (Casey Affleck) which makes her loss that much more alienating. In fact, she mentions he barely makes notice of her outside of his dutiful markings in his ledger of the dates she went into town for supplies.

From this obligatory matching of a foursome, The World to Come spins a quietly swooning tale of unrequited love and buried emotions. Like she did with her previous (and equally devastating) debut film The Sleepwalker (2014), Fastvold shows a keen sense of minimal setting and maximum complexity when two couples collide. Even though the focus collects around the budding friendship of Abigail and Tallie, there’s just enough nuance shed upon their tight-lipped husbands to create a portrait of frontier life that’s just as brutal as the ones depicting gunfights and outlaw raids. But while Abbott and Affleck serve as the unwavering patriarchy, the film amply shows the repression and expectation placed upon the women of this day, which only serves to highlight the moments of fleeting freedom Tallie and Abigail experience while in each other’s company. It’s a striking balance that Fastvold understands completely.

Based upon a short story by writer Jim Sheridan, The World to Come also doesn’t shy away from the harshness of its setting. Blinding snowstorms, torrential rains, daily back breaking chores, and a sudden house fire all punctuate the relentless dirge. With a terrific score by Daniel Blumberg, these acts of nature wash across the screen with pulsating violence. It’s a total effort that make the film an experience both inner and outer.

But nothing would linger quite so magnificently without the central performances of Kirby and Waterston. Kirby, so good in the recent Pieces of a Woman (2020), gets the flashier role of curly hair and carnal gaze, but it’s Waterston who blazes out from her buttoned personality to really touch the soul as the woman who loses- or depending on how one sees it, gains- the most.

As a writer, Fastvold has penned some of the most interesting films of the past few years, including Brady Corbet’s masterful The Childhood of a Leader (2015) and The Mustang (2019). Here in The World to Come, she carries over those complexities to tell a story that’s been done multiple times in the past decade but still manages to carve out her own delicate portrait of love in a time that has no descriptive identifier. Like the blinding snowstorm that engulfs Tallie on a venture home and places her inside a barn with three nefarious men also seeking shelter, the film shows that nothing is easy for anyone mapping out their own atlas of the world, whether that’s how we find our way home or who we love.

The World to Come will open in limited theatrical release in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday February 12th. It begins streaming on Amazon Prime on March 5th.