SUNDANCE 2021: ‘The World To Come’ is a Beautiful, Forlorn Romance

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The World To Come

Set in the harsh, but stunning landscape of upstate New York in the eighteenth century, The World To Come is a romance built on hope, our human need to connect and console, and longing. Abigail is a dutiful wife, but reeling from the loss of her child and resigned to the drudgery of her rural life. When another couple moves to the area, Abigail meets Tallie and suddenly she feels the first breath of hope in years. The pair form a bond that quickly blossoms into an affair. For both women, the love they find with each other is a break from the monotony of their lives and a beautiful rebellion against rigid patriarchy.

The World To Come stars Katherine Waterston as Abigail and Vanessa Kirby as Tallie. The small and intimate cast is joined by Casey Affleck and Christopher Abbott. Mona Fastvold directs this adaptation of Jim Shepard’s 2017 short story of the same name.

Hollywood sure does love a pair of white lesbians against some romantic, period backdrop. It’s a trope to be sure, but it’s a trope that really works. When we look back on the history of women and the vice grip that marriage and husbands had on the lives of many women, we can only imagine the secret lives of those women. We can imagine the frustration and longing of women that wanted to love differently or live differently. The setting of The World To Come may be a cliche, at this point, but it is the clearest language for communicating the tragedy of this doomed-from-the-start romance.

The inherent tragedy of The World To Come is best illustrated in Abigail’s secret writings, where she must hide her true thoughts in plain sight. Abigail’s diary and letters are the great cinematic devices of the film in that Abigail’s writing — by further extension the screenwriting — is sweeping, beautiful, and telling. In the earliest scenes of the film, the viewer finds Abigail writing in the journal log her husband asks her to keep. She mentions in passing the frigid winter and how “ice has come into their bedroom.” Such a small observation that speaks so loudly to the viewer. We know exactly where the couple is. The World To Come is a visual feast of a film but even more so a looping and lyrical prose. Writing is the heartbeat of the film, both within the story and in the behind the scenes creation of this romance.

When considering the romance of Abigail and Tallie, warmth is the word that comes to mind. Not just the tenderness of their actual relationship, but how the relationship is inherently the warmth that thaws and frees these two women. Abigail and Tallie are searching. They are trapped in a world that is colorless, cold, and rigid. In each other, they are able to be the version of themselves that lives beyond the utilitarian relationship they have with their husbands. In the warm embrace of their romance, Abigail and Tallie are allowed to be individuals that are free to dream and indulge.

It’s no mistake that this film begins in the dreary grey of winter and, when Tallie arrives, spring arrives in a slow blush. Their romance blooms. Blooms in the sensual physical sense in which a woman blooms, but blooming as in growth. Being able to explore themselves and pleasures previously unknown is what ultimately allows Abigail and Tallie to weather their marriages. Daring to love and daring to imagine a life beyond what has been inflicted on you eventually allows these women to grow as people. Against the backdrop of Puritanical patriarchy, a lesbian affair is the ultimate in feminine defiance.

Katherine Waterson and Vanessa Kirby give raw and subtle performances that could make your chest collapse from the weight of it. Their efforts make The World To Come the poetry that it was intended to be. Beautifully done.

The World To Come is the most consuming sort of love story. Equally tragic and hopeful, but always beautiful. One of the most thoughtfully written and lovingly performed films I’ve seen recently.

The World To Come screened on February 2 at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

 

The World To Come
  • 7/10
    Rating - 7/10
7/10

TL;DR

The World To Come is the most consuming sort of love story. Equally tragic and hopeful, but always beautiful. One of the most thoughtfully written and lovingly performed films I’ve seen recently.