Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss that period romances between white women have become commonplace. Ammonite, The Favourite, Carol, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, all are very white and very in the past. It seems this is what prestige films about queer women have settled into as they’ve pushed into the mainstream, and that paucity of variety creates a myriad of problems.
Most obviously, the repetition gets boring. Almost all of them are a mix of longing, feminism, and tragedy, and there’s so much more that could be explored if these films broke out of this very narrow mold. More sinisterly, looking at the trials and tribulations of queer women from years past is a safe, dramatic way to earn “progressive” points without actually pushing audiences. Continuously framing these things as issues of the past is a trick used across a variety of mediums against a huge swath of minority groups, and this kind of art is usually more effective in maintaining the status quo than in pushing for meaningful change.
None of that is the fault of The World to Come, which is, you guessed it, a period romance between two white women. That unfortunately places it on a continuum that’s become stale, meaning something extra is required of it to stand out. And that’s where the movie falls short, not with any big flaw but in not achieving anything truly great, and hence it seems doomed to fade into the ether.
It’s a cruel fate for a movie so concerned with what is remembered. It’s structured, ostensibly, as the journal of a farmer in 1800s America. Abigail (Katherine Waterston), has taken it upon herself to keep an addendum to her husband’s ledger, a record she barely appears in despite doing pivotal work that fills her time more than her mind. In it she expounds on what her husband’s record of crop yields and expenditures is missing: the drudgery of their days, the pains they carry, and the brief moments of lightness.
Waterston is saddled with actually reading these entries as voiceover, and if that makes the movie sound very written to you, then you’re inferring what I’m implying. The film is adapted from a short story by Jim Shepard, who along with novelist Ron Hansen wrote the screenplay. They’re clearly more comfortable with the tricks of written stories than of filmed ones, and their overreliance on weighted turns of phrases dampen what should have been a thrillingly subtle story.
And yet, what they’ve created in Abigail is an undeniably intriguing character. A classic stiff with a boundless inner life (or as her lover puts it “it’s not always those who show the least who feel the least”), she laments a life that relentlessly quashes her curiosity and passion. The diary she keeps acts as a cry into the abyss. Who will read it is a mystery, but the people she sees disappearing around her without note compels her to make whatever humble mark she can.
Into this world comes a new couple, a rigid man who makes Abigail’s own taciturn husband seem warm in comparison and his instantly beguiling wife, Tallie (Vanessa Kirby). It must be noted that the two husbands are played by Casey Affleck and Christopher Abbott, both wonderful actors who sadly have limited rolls to play here. The movie only really exists between Abigail and Tallie and Abigail and her diary, with one relationship being much more full than the other.
Again, there’s nothing really wrong with the romance between Abigail and Tallie. One understands the attraction and little moments show a deep understanding of each other that takes the relationship beyond simple lust. But their falling in love moves a bit too fast, and the high points of their time together are held back a bit too much. This is a movie that thrives on what is overlooked or lost, and for all the chilliness director Mona Fastvold beautifully taps into through their frontier environment, she fails to capture their relationship as the one true source of warmth that would be a great tragedy to lose.
When Abigail expounds in her diary, though, are when we get moments of intense, clear-eyed connection. She sees their frontier world as it is: a rough, callous place where disaster comes far more often than joy. Her surprise when something as good as Tallie enters, and how that changes her observations, proves more moving than the romance itself. These thoughtful passages were clearly meant to be the only moments Abigail could truly express herself, and while that’s an admirable attempt to approach familiar themes of repression from a different angle , it’s not exactly the most satisfying.
Release: currently available in theaters and will release digitally on March 2nd
Director: Mona Fastvold
Writers: Jim Shepard, Ron Hansen
Cast: Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, Casey Affleck, and Christopher Abbott