- Bleecker Street Films
Here's a challenge for someone who watches way too many movies: How do you balance the realization that certain kinds of stories have been excluded from our culture for most of history, with the realization that we're seeing those so regularly now that they could feel redundant? Because that could easily feel like what's happening with period-piece stories of forbidden lesbian romances, especially in the wake of 2015's Carol. Just in the past few years, we've seen The Favourite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Colette and Ammonite. What can The World to Come bring to the table that offers a fresh perspective beyond how unhappy sexual conformity makes its characters?
As it happens, a distinct sense of place can change the dynamic entirely. The World to Come winds up being as much about the specifics of its own world as it is the people who are confined by it, and grounds its sense of tragedy in gender roles that define a woman's value in the narrowest possible terms.
Adapting a short story by Jim Shepard, it opens in January 1856 in upstate Schoharie County, New York, with diary entries from Abigail (Katherine Waterston). Still mourning the recent death of her young daughter, Abigail lives alone with her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck) on their isolated farm, attempting to scratch out a subsistence as winter settles in. Arriving to rent a nearby farm are Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and her husband Finney (Christopher Abbott), a similarly childless couple, and Tallie's presence provides Abigail with a personal connection she can find nowhere else.
That connection ultimately turns into a love affair, and director Mona Fastvold slow-plays the growing intimacy between Abigail and Tallie to brilliant effect. Waterston and Kirby offer distinct interpretations on women of this time, as Tallie's more open contempt for her husband's domineering ways collides with Abigail's passive acceptance of her lot in life. Affleck and Abbott provide similar contrasts, but the success or failure of a story like this revolves around the performances at its heart, and both Waterston and Kirby make the unexpected appearance of genuine love in their life a heartbreaking reality.
It's almost a given that there's no love in their respective marriages, but The World to Come captures why that's the case beyond the specifics of these two relationships. Fastvold and the screenwriters dig into the notion of a wife's simple "use value" in this time—specifically, as a bearer of children and a helper with the necessary chores to keep food on the table and the farm functional. With both of these women in different ways a "failure" in the former role—Tallie has been unable to get pregnant, and Abigail reluctant to try again after the death of her daughter—they find themselves of diminished worth to their husbands, and they know it.
Opening the story during a harsh winter, with storms killing the chickens and making a horse ride home a danger, emphasizes the fact that making it from year to year in this time and place is no guarantee, turning the marital relationship into something purely economic and transactional. When your role to your husband is primarily as a producer of labor—and indeed a producer of other laborers—someone who asks nothing of you but your presence and your affection feels revolutionary.
The World to Come delves into thoughts about religion as well, but not in the expected ways. No one endures a fire-and-brimstone sermon about perversions that forces them to cower in shame, nor is there an overt expression of Christianity as one of the reasons Tallie and Abigail can't be together. There's more a mournful sense of how little comfort it offers Abigail, who drifts away from faith in her grief. While the title of The World to Come echoes a line from the Nicene Creed about the dream of heavenly salvation, it takes on another context as we watch from 150 years' distance. The world to come is this one, where these two people could be joined in love, and where too many more tragic stories of lost opportunity remain to be told.