by Jordan King
An overwhelmingly sensual and sensory experience set against the backdrop of rural mid-19th Century New York, Mona Fastvold’s The World To Come is a gorgeously realised portrayal of relationships both burning with passion and burnt out long ago, of the yearning romance held in the written word, and of the smouldering, transportive power of the physical embrace. Shot on grainy, textural 16mm film that captures Fastvold’s vision in a purposely muted fashion, the love story buried in the stock and roots of this film offer a clarity of thought and feeling that is anything but.
When we meet Abigail (Katherine Waterston), she and her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck) have just lost their daughter to diphtheria. Paralysed in a state of grief, Abigail narrates her anguish at her loss as we are shown the pathetic fallacy of a harsh winter settling upon her and her husband’s farm home. Encaged in a marriage that is loveless not through neglect but through rather a simple inability for either party to provide what the other desires and needs, Abigail writes poetically articulated prose to preserve the essence of her self between the pressed pages of her journal. Waterston intones her narration of these clandestine self-confessionals – which guide the film’s plot as well as controlling its tone – throughout the film with just enough restraint to keep Abigail’s heart shielded somewhat and just enough passion to hear it beating beneath her words nevertheless. Her husband on the other hand, played sympathetically by Affleck as a man with a voice rarely raised above a whisper and a head rarely held high enough to meet his wife’s eyes, expresses nothing that we can perceive as he simply sets about his daily grift. We get the sense that Dyer knows his marriage has no love in it as Abigail’s nightly rejections form his daily shame, but such a husk of a man has he become that you get the impression he would no longer feel passion even if it were put upon him.
When new faces in the area Finney (Christopher Abbott) and his wife Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) arrive, Abigail is immediately taken with the auburn haired beauty and outward expressivity of the new lady in town. Wife of a husband whose alchemic constitution comprises of petulance, idiocy, brutish ignorance, and beer, also known as the perfect recipe for toxic masculinity, Tallie’s arrival in Abigail’s life marks a sort of rebirth for both women who have found themselves in differently manifested but equally joyless relationships. Where Abigail internalises the intensity of her emotional experiences and feelings, Tallie outwardly, physically expresses hers, daring almost someone to take her hand and show her real love. Whilst Waterston’s portrayal of Abigail is one borne of restraint and a slow journey of becoming, her character expressed in nervous smiles and doe-like glances, Kirby characterises Tallie through fizzing romantic potential and encouraging, coaxing affectations.
In a world painted predominantly in shades of grey, Tallie’s auburn hair – as obvious a metaphor as it is to observe – brings colour to Abigail’s world, placing her as a flaming beacon of something exciting, attractive, and warming to her – a fire around which she longs to be curled in a loving embrace. When early in the film Abigail and Tallie sit side-by-side with one another as they chat away, Tallie’s fingers tentatively search for the touch of Abigail’s hand. In that minor act which implicitly reveals to both women that something exists between them that they have failed to find in any man, we are given the ignition of a flame that will burn through private joy and public sorrow alike.
As the pair steal moments together where they can kiss and conjure imagined futures where they escape together, DoP Andre Chemetov beautifully captures the way in which the changing seasons reflect Abigail and Tallie’s evolving romance. Whilst the film begins in the fall, where life stagnates and the snow falls like a white sheet over a corpse, it follows through spring and summer with injections of colour as sunlight finds its way into Abigail and Tallie’s souls and their love blossoms. Daniel Blumberg’s yearning, evocative score swirls around this story and draws out the innermost feelings of Abigail and Tassie’s affair with just as much purpose and artistry. When the two women first kiss, a moment marked by their aggressively passionate clashing of lips and their subsequent complete loss of composure – Abigail, the poet with words, can only muster ‘You smell like biscuits’, whilst her paramour, usually so bold, worries Abigail might catch her cold – Blumberg’s clarinet-led accompaniment crystalises that transformative epoch in these women’s lives beautifully.
Whilst the realities of living as a woman in a man’s world mean that the course of true love cannot run smooth, and the two women’s emancipation in one another’s arms is immortalised only in one another’s imaginations, even tragic developments towards the film’s climax cannot stifle the impact and power of Abigail and Tallie’s time together. A Cinema Paradiso reminiscent sequence in the film’s third act, which allows us to see flashes of all the stolen moments Abigail and Tallie shared that we previously had not seen, reminding us that what we have been given only breaches the surface of the couple’s intimate relationship, is amongst the most emotionally affecting montages I’ve seen on film in recent years.
With the elevated romanticism of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the elemental tactility and stolen urgency of Ammonite, and a literary quality in the screenplay that perfectly compliments the film’s gorgeous imagery, I was utterly entranced by Fastvold’s exploration of a timeless love experienced in an uncompromising and patriarchally encaging time. Waterston is wonderful, Kirby is magnetic, and the pair together are heart melting as well as heart wrenching. The World To Come is enough to make even the hardiest of hearts believe that love truly conquers all
The World to Come played as part of the Sundance Film Festival 2021