In 1856 in Schoharie County, Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck) live a passionless and gruelling existence, tending to their farm on a daily basis. They are also in mourning of the death of their young daughter Nellie and lead an isolated existence until another couple, Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and Finney (Christopher Abbott) move in beside them. Abigail and Tallie soon strike up an intimate friendship, their relationship full of warmth and tenderness, though their husbands find their closeness frustrating. Matters take a more turn when the women fall in love with one another.
Farm life has rarely looked so unfulfilling and dreary as it is in ‘The World to Come’. Dullness, greys and browns dominate the cinematography, light only coming in the short time that Nellie is on the screen, and later when Tallie enters Abigail’s life. Having made a name for herself in such major franchises as ‘Fantastic Beasts’ and ‘Alien’, Katherine Waterston makes for a compelling lead, her voiceover narration the primary source of dialogue as she pens her thoughts and tasks in her journal.
Kirby too is very good, while Affleck arguably gives the most natural and nuanced performance as Dyer. Abbott is convincingly threatening as Tallie’s mean and controlling husband, the four leads carrying the movie well and sharing a strong rapport. But the story their characters are enveloped in is just a tad dull. Moreover, it is quite predictable how it’s all going to end.
Still, ‘The World to Come’ is clearly a labour of love for director Mona Fastvold, which is appropriate given labour and love are the movie’s primary themes. The bond between the two women is tenderly depicted. Their conversations centre around children and their husbands, the topics of conversation reflecting the priorities and struggles of women in these times. Abigail comes to increasingly consider just how much is expected of women, and so the past is likened to the present, while Tallie’s sense of loneliness and isolation mean that the private, joyful world she and Abigail made is failing her.
The production design is impressive too, and the era is captured well. It’s just a stretch to find anything all that remarkable in ‘The World to Come’, and its consistent return to manual labour comes to feel like a space filler, rooted in realism though it is.