A film review by Craig J. Koban April 13, 2021

THE WORLD TO COME jjj
 

2021, R, 98 mins.

Vanessa Kirby as Tallie  /  Katherine Waterston as Abigail  /  Casey Affleck as Dyer  /  Christopher Abbott as Finney  /  Andreea Vasile as Mother

Directed by Mona Fastvold  /  Written by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, based on Shephard's short story

Romance tales of two lost souls being trapped by circumstance and time embracing forbidden love are as old as time, making the core premise of the period drama THE WORLD TO COME seem like it's made up from highly familiar genre ingredients...but it's what the film does with those ingredients that makes it special.    

This Mona Fastvold directed and Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard scripted affair chronicles two neighboring frontier households in mid-19th Century America.  The two respective wives in particular spark a lesbian affair as a form of both sexual release and as manner of dealing with oppressive feelings of isolation and hardship of being in the middle of nowhere and apart from civilization.  What really separates THE WORLD TO COME from other western dramas is that it's a tale told directly via a female voice, which is not a dime a dozen for the genre.  That, and as a historical LGBT romance film it's told with graceful dramatic touches and is richly atmospheric.  You really feel the weight of the world of the era bearing down hard on these characters, which helps cement the central and inherent tragedy of unfulfilled women that are lost souls finding one another, but cannot publicly act on or display their desires. 

Co-writer Shepard adapts his own short story here, which opens in 19th Century New York and takes place over multiple seasons.  It's 1856 and a well meaning and hard working farmer, Dyer (Casey Affleck), is trying to make a go of it as a farmer with his wife Abigail (Katherine Waterston), but any attempts at financial stability and happiness is overcome by the daily rigors of each new day, not to mention the untimely death of their young daughter, which hits both of them extremely hard.  Not assisting matters is how arduous hard labor, treacherous elements, and being secluded from everyone and everything is starting to have a negative effect on Dyer and Abigail's marriage, with the loss of their child being a punishing blow that both find impossible to overcome.  Both seem committed to working hard to secure their future, but love is all but eroded in their relationship now.  They seem hopelessly distant as husband and wife, which Abigail feels more potently.  She's an eloquently intelligent and independent minded women that doesn't seem content with being a loyal housewife catering to her husband's needs. 

A new couple enters into their lives, Finney (Christopher Abbott) and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), who introduce themselves to Dyer and Abigail and are renting out nearby farmland.  Right from the get-go an ethereal spark seems to be ignited between Tallie and Abigail, which begins with platonic companionship that helps both of them find an outlet away from the pain and misery of homesteading in wildly untamed lands and weather.  Abigail grows to respect Tallie's frank gumption, and as the days progress she seems elated that she now has another woman to confide in and emotionally relate to, even though both husbands begin to resent the amount of time their wives are spending apart from them while being together.  Predictably, the bond between the two women becomes inseparable and segues into a sexual relationship, which they obviously have to keep a secret from their husbands and just about anyone else from society.  All they yearn for is a manner to break free of their marriages and live freely as same sex lovers, but the painful repercussions of such actions - and the rigid patriarchal and gender defining norms of the day - forces them to live out their intimate union in secret.  They're hopelessly in love, but hopelessly exist within a time that doesn't allow for such unions, making them both feeling more broken and adrift in the process. 

 

 

I admired the patience and restraint that is used in THE WORLD TO COME in the early stages, especially when it comes to introducing us to the fractured marriage between Abigail and Dyer while later showing the former being pulled slowly, but deeply into the vortex of another woman, who clearly represents a form of initial and immediate escape.  We learn little details here and there about both women, like the aforementioned loss Abigail's daughter and Tallie's inability to have children; both experience loss in different ways, which only further nurtures their growing attraction to one another.  THE WORLD TO COME is largely told through the eyes and voice of Abigail, who attempts to process her deepest, guarded feelings in her diary, which also serves as a voiceover track for the film as it unfolds.   Abigail is established as having the true heart and talent of a poet, and her self-expression through her writing serves as a melancholic narrator of what transpires throughout the course of the story.  We've all seen countless tales of frontier adversity in many a western drama before, but rarely do they ever get to the true core of how such struggles hit women the way this film does. 

Complimenting this creative choice is just how sumptuously shot this film is by cinematographer Andre Chemetoff, who makes an atypical choice of using 16mm (at least as far as westerns and romance pictures go), that does wonders to visually embellish the gritty ruggedness of the landscapes that these characters reside in (this is not a warm, bright, and heavily romanticized look at the period in question).  That's not to say that THE WORLD TO COME looks aggressively grim and dour, though.  To the contrary, the film looks textured and authentically lived, sometimes carrying the veracity of a you-are-there documentary of the era.  THE WORLD TO COME was shot in Romania doubling for New York, but the result is astoundingly seamless in terms of capturing the limitless remoteness of these pastoral settings and how they affect these characters, in one form or another.  But Fastvold and Chemetoff do find beautiful imagery to escape into as well, like opulent magic hour sunsets or the way that interiors are embellished with the welcoming and soothing glow of candlelight.  THE WORLD TO COME manages to make its world feel both suitably grungy, yet hypnotizingly inviting in its own unique way.  

The biggest heavy lifting that occurs in this film definitely comes from the performers, and Waterston in particular has always been a real fly-in-under-the radar actress in terms of her thankless range.  As Abigail she has to portray years of anguish and regret in a mostly non-verbal manner, and it takes a special kind of understated acting talent to relay so much as to the psychology of her character without directly and methodically tipping it off.  She's rather well matched by Kirby, and the tandem creates palpable passion and chemistry throughout as two women that feel that their love is right in a world and time that feels the exact opposite.  The two actresses are so good here that it unfortunately emphasizes one of the weak points of THE WORLD TO COME when it comes to the male characters, with both Dyer and Finney being largely underwritten and improperly fleshed out in the broadest of strokes.  However, to be fair, how many westerns/period films have there been that have marginalized their female characters in order to prop up the prominence of the men?  Too many to count, by my estimation. 

Still, there are some other issues at play here too, like the fact that THE WORLD TO COME  sometimes feels like it has very little narrative trajectory and, more often than not, seems comprised of vignettes that are casually strung together.  It's more of a tone poem/mood piece than a linear point A to B to C storytelling experience, which may alienate some viewers.  Plus, yes, timeless love stories made of the same recurring themes have progressively become a fairly dominant genre in itself these days, which means that THE WORLD TO COME has to work hard to elevate itself above overused conventions (and it is, when it comes right down to it, a fairly conventionally told tale).  Yet, where the film lacks in terms of some originality it largely makes up for it in terms of the bravura performances by Waterston and Kirby, its routinely fine eye for the more gnarly aspects of period detail, and with the respect it pays to the fragile mindsets of its female characters, both of whom are stuck in a massive rut that they know they can't escape from despite their intense love for one another.  And, in the end, THE WORLD TO COME emerges as both a deeply enthralling and sensitively told love story, which is a lot more than what most romance films can muster up these days. 

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