Mona Fastvold has mounted an exquisitely crafted sophomore feature with The World to Come, the tale of two married women in the early American frontier who find love and solace from the confines upon them. Structured by diary entries, Fastvold takes a lyrical approach to a dire story that echoes into modern times like a tender, warning reminder. She depicts a not-so-distant time when harrowing medicine was documented plainly, where there was little room for feeling lest you derail your own means of survival, where the interior lives of women were excised. But as much as Fastvold’s thematic observations feel like removing a bandage from a still festering wound, it also swoons with the divine release that comes from unexpected, consuming, necessary love.
Written by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, the film finds married couple Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Dyer (Casey Affleck) in an uncommunicative routine after losing their only child. He tends their small farm as she goes about her homebound tasks, without another human connection or the resources to untangle eachother’s separate grief. Life is not only very quiet, it’s a claustrophobic cage encased in their small clearing of land without a soul in sight beyond the tree line.
When Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and her husband Finney (Christopher Abbot) arrive at a nearby farm, it’s not just that Abigail has another woman to connect with. Tallie brings an entire school of thought with her as she crosses her new neighbors’ threshold, opening Abigail’s spirit to the point of rebirth. Tallie is somewhat demonstrative at first, her sophistication filling Abigail’s small quarters, already an aspirational figure before the first stir of romantic affection. And when love is confessed, all of the societally structured dams of their homelife dynamic come crumbling down.
There is a majesty in the way Mona Fastvold conveys the catharsis of connection when Abigail and Tallie stumble into their affair. Aided by Daniel Blumberg’s intoxicating score and austere cinematography by André Chemetoff, The World to Come is precise in its emotional textures. Once the two share their first feveredly hesitant first kiss, Abigail expands physically and mentally, splaying herself backward on her kitchen table, her small world at once flipping upside down and opening beyond its former scope. Fastvold’s rigid cinematic structure is similarly undone, quickly loosening to spark of her protagonist’s newfound optimism. This dexterous storytelling approach thrusts us directly into Abigail’s experience of body and soul, all the more moving for how Fastvold pivots the narrative to discuss how the era’s storykeeping methods prevented us from truly knowing the women like her and how they lived. It’s a modest cinematic achievement that is by turns wondrous, reflective, and ultimately devastating.
This is more than yet another period lesbian romance. The World to Come is that, but utilizes a love story as a jumping point to contextualize the role of women in the mid-19th century. The isolation of the frontier presents an environment that fuels oppression, where men were free to abuse women and omit them and their stories from the history books. This makes it an interesting, if unexpected companion to Heidi Schrek’s What the Constitution Means To Me, which spoke directly to American legality’s relationship to the obscuring of women’s interior lives in previous generations.
The film also holds a sharp eye towards the husbands. While Finney is the brute quasi-sophisticate, Dyer is more helplessly compassionate within the indoctrinated expectations placed by men on their wives. Fastvold draws a distinction between partnership and ideological ownership in these men, the need to assert dominance (sexual or otherwise) and the need to rely on one another to survive. Even though her setting is remote, Fastvold’s vision of the time feels complete rather than isolated due to how she avoids simple archetypes.
With Waterston giving her finest, most vividly transforming work yet, The World to Come seizes with emotion that alternates between stifled and overwhelming. Though its initial formalism may provide a distancing effect for some, the film’s complex unfurling of context and passion provides meaning to its complex emotional journey. Such an exacting yet consuming dichotomy makes Mona Fastvold one of the more exciting emerging directorial voices, finding harmony here among many hefty thematic avenues. Don’t confuse its chamber piece nature for it being something slight; The World to Come ignites something thrilling in its brief runtime.