Teeming with brooding cinematography and delicate prose, Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come is arguably more interested in faithfully adapting co-writer Jim Shepard’s 2017 short story of the same name than it is exploring the unfurling relationship between budding lovers Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby)—or circumventing the tropes it inevitably falls into along the way.
The story opens on New Year’s Day 1856, as told through Abigail’s personal diary via sustained poetic voiceover from Waterston. It becomes clear from the outset that Abigail’s life is incredibly bleak; the pale blue hue that washes over the film is fittingly bolstered by one of the chilly narration’s first lines: “The water froze on the potatoes as soon as they were washed. With little pride, and less hope, we begin the new year.”
Abigail’s hopelessness stems from the recent loss of her young daughter and the subsequent strain this has put on her marriage with hard-working farmer Dyer (Casey Affleck). Her despondency is somewhat mitigated when new neighbors move in—a similarly childless couple that also tend stock for a living—and Abigail immediately feels drawn to the charismatic Tallie. However, Tallie’s husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) begins to grow suspicious and jealous of the two’s closeness, eventually taking his insecurity to a harrowing extreme.
Much has already been said about how lesbian period dramas overwhelmingly skew towards portraying white, cis, femme women, and The World to Come is certainly no exception. Yet where other lesbian period dramas that fall into the same trappings thrive—such as Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s lack of male presence or Carol’s all-consuming chemistry—The World to Come can’t help but feel bogged down by its reliance on the tropes that its recent predecessors have at least attempted to sidestep.
Tragedy has long been at the core of depicting queer stories on screen, perhaps because as a marginalized group, intolerance and homophobia have undeniably affected LGBTQ people on both a sprawling individual and a collective level. Yet when the only narrative resolution for historical deviation from heterosexual norms culminates in death and dismay, it often perpetuates the falsehood that queer people simply couldn’t exist happily before the new millenia. This streak of weepy malaise overwhelmingly affects the period lesbian drama canon, but The World to Come arrives at our current junction of global pessimism and a mental health crisis, giving it the bitter taste of an unpleasant medicine queer people have been asked to swallow for far too long. The two leads hardly experience real physical intimacy, their romance fizzling out drably when their controlling husbands demand it.
Aside from the recent period lesbian media craze, the film also cultivates an environment for lesbianism that can’t help but feel tied to spinsterism and an overall “failure” of womanhood.
Novelist Shepard adapts his own original short story alongside Ron Hansen, and their screenplay is steeped in the kind of male preconceptions of what it might mean to be a gay woman. Abigail’s realization of her attraction to Tallie comes only after losing a child and falling behind on her womanly errands, her utility as a woman and wife devalued in the eyes of her husband Dyer. The film also affords relatively little depth to the male characters, both rarely rising above a mere solemn moodiness. While this plays a bit better to Affleck’s strengths as an actor, his distinctly 20th century everyman cadence prevents him from disappearing into his character in the viewer’s eyes. Additionally, Affleck’s heavy hand in the film—serving as star and producer—perhaps adds unwanted dimensions to the story’s exploration of power and autonomy in domestic relationships. For a film that is ostensibly most interested in exploring the prison of traditional womanhood, it can’t help but lose some of its credibility when financed by and prominently featuring a man who’s weathered (and settled) multiple sexual harassment lawsuits.
However, there are various subdued accomplishments within The World to Come despite the overwhelmingly tired romantic narrative. The woodwind-tinged score by composer Daniel Blumberg lingers and haunts appropriately, often conveying a deeper emotion than that which stews in stagnation between Abigail and Tallie. Fastvold’s direction is uniquely strong. Her framing and exploration of the characters comes from a genuine infatuation with the original text, evident in the meticulous marriage of Shepard’s original literary prose with appropriately moody visuals and a conscious sonic landscape. It retains the integrity of written verse while elevating the story to a distinctly filmic plane that will surely sway audiences with the weight of its tender yet bleak sentiment. Fastvold’s implementation of ASMR-esque narration as the film draws to a close is a clever technique to ensure that the audience’s body hair raises involuntarily, provoking a corporeal sense of sorrowful understanding that transcends individual taste and poorly utilized tropes.
The World to Come doesn’t offer queer viewers anything revelatory in the realm of lesbian period romance—an increasingly prevalent subgenre that could stand to closely scrutinize the involvement of men behind its scenes—but its audiovisual creativity might very well justify Fastvold’s adaptation of yet another sad Sapphic story.
Director: Mona Fastvold
Writer: Ron Hansen, Jim Shepard
Stars: Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, Casey Affleck, Christopher Abbott
Release Date: March 2, 2021
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.