The World to Come finds forbidden love in a 19th century New York winter

Mona Fastvold’s period romance between housewives played by Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby peers into the untold history of women’s domesticity.

Katherine Waterston as Abigail and Vanessa Kirby as Tallie in The World to Come

The World to Come is in UK cinemas.

“Her skin had an underflush of rose and violet,” marvels lonely farmer’s wife Abigail (Katherine Waterston) to her diary, transfixed by the first visit of vivacious neighbour Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), the camera drinking in their hesitant delight in one another.

Director Mona Fastvold’s delicate, tragedy-tinged period lesbian romance, set in mid 19th-century rough-country New York State, is filled with these sensuous grace notes, as the childless women’s closeness through the harsh rural winter tips into a yearning affair. 

A story about women’s untold lives, co-scripted by Ron Hansen (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 2007) from Jim Shepard’s short story, it has the tension of a frontier western, where life can be casually snuffed out by anger or disease (Abigail has lost a small daughter already). But the film’s thickly wooded setting (Romania makes a lush New York stand-in), with Winslow Homer-style farms cut off in fierce winter blizzards or nestled in fresh green spring woods, is also key to understanding the women’s bond, as they turn their isolated, chore-packed days into flirtatious trysts. Closely observed seasons reflect their love’s topsy-turvy progress, as winter chill wraps around their first warm meetings, but husbandly unease and veiled threats creep into their idyllic spring together. 

The World to Come (2020)

Unlike the sensuous, painterly Portrait of a Lady on Fire, this is a literary film, structured by Abigail’s sharply observed diary entries, whose poetic narration underlines what Fastvold’s sensitive direction has already established. That said, graceful language, whether in Tallie’s charming, questioning wooing, or Abigail’s dazzled reflections, serves as the verbal foreplay that ignites their affair.

DP André Chemetoff’s discreet, distanced camerawork often pauses in a doorway, or between trees, spying on the lovers’ closeness or their heedless caresses. “You smell like biscuits.” murmurs an entranced Abigail, reminding us that like Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010) this film explores an largely unrecorded women’s world of thankless domestic toil. 

As suspicions tighten around the women, Christopher Abbott’s volatile Finney, Tallie’s jealous husband, makes his scenes crackle with menace, though Vanessa Kirby’s alternately bold and wearily compliant Tallie feels faintly mannered. Casey Affleck’s nicely underplayed Dyer, bruised and bemused by the change in his wife, rightly leaves the performance heavy lifting to Waterston, who is startlingly good. Her unworldly Abigail is blissfully transparent, mobile face darting from frank, gawping delight to raw misery as events sour. Splayed on a bench after the women’s first kiss, she’s a picture of giddy, indecorous abandon, a startling and overdue onscreen rebuttal of those ubiquitous representations of the wifely ‘Angel in the House’.

Further reading

The new issue of Sight and Sound

In this 21st-century cinema special: 25 critics choose an era-defining film from each year of the century, and J. Hoberman asks: what is a 21st-century film? Plus: ten talking points from Cannes – George Miller on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – remembering Roger Corman with a never-before-seen interview.

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