A tale of love on the frontier, The World to Come is similar to any number of films in theme and plot, but somehow manages to establish a tone and tenor all its own.
A deliberately paced period drama focusing on romantic love between two women? Portrait of a Lady on Fire did it well just two years ago. Hell, Ammonite did it reasonably well just a few months back.
But there’s a strange lack of films that explore the harsh realities of the American frontier in the mid-to-late 19thcentury, and that’s where World finds its voice, along with its exploration of grief, love and how the two intertwine.
Abigail (Katherine Waterston) lives with her husband, Dyer (Casey Affleck), somewhere in the American East; at one point they reference Syracuse, so it would be easy to assume New York or somewhere thereabouts. Dyer and Abigail lost a daughter to sickness, and since then their marriage has become a vague partnership. Dyer is a passionless, formal man for whom feelings and social graces are a mystery, a trait that Abigail once easily resigned herself into accepting but which she can now hardly bear.
When spouses Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and Finney (Christopher Abbott) rent a neighboring home, the couples become fast friends who set up meals and spend time together, albeit largely at the insistence of the women. The men and women also see each other without their spouses, but the women begin to develop a more special bond.
It seems the couples have a lot in common. Neither woman performs her “wifely duties,” as the men state — Tallie because she does not like, and is growing to fear, Finney, and Abigail largely because of the grief she feels over the loss of her daughter and her reluctance to have another child.
As Tallie and Abigail draw away from their husbands, they move closer to each other and their friendship becomes a more passionate romantic love. The husbands suspect something; Dyer seems content to passive-aggressively grouse about how it affects him, but Finney gets a little more confrontational.
To her credit, director Mona Fastvold focuses on the fulfillment the women are missing from their marriages and the hardships they have to endure in life more than the relationship between the women, although it’s certainly easy to see why the two would be drawn to each other. Waterston and Kirby show us how their characters connect on a deep level, inherently understanding each other, their worries, and their losses their respective partners can hardly be bothered to ask how they are.
The men are predictably archetypes, although Abbott and Affleck bring some humanity to their respective roles. Finney, in particular, is portrayed as increasingly unhinged, unwilling to accept his wife’s disrespect (as he terms it) and willing to intimidate and scare her into getting what he wants. Dyer is more caring, but just emotionally unable to connect with Abigail in the way that she desires.
The harsh winter is of course emblematic of the chasm between the two women, as weather makes it increasingly difficult both to see each other and to carry on their relationship as they want — both keeping them apart and stranding them with their respective partners.
Fastvold shows how the mix of tedium and danger can create potential death traps. Illness can be catastrophic, both in the danger of death and in the loss of work, and she deftly weaves them into the narrative.
She also treats Abigail and Tallie’s relationship as a friendship and romance, avoiding long sex scenes and nudity except for one single, brief sequence that is more emphatic and emotional than prurient.
The World to Come is slow but never a slog. It’s emotional but not melodramatic and is tender but not cloying. It’s solid if unspectacular, and establishes Fastvold as a solid, if not flashy, director.