The World To Come – Sundance 2021 Review

The World to Come is the latest entrant in the recent trend of the lesbian period drama. You can probably trace this trend back to the success of Todd Haynes’ Carol, but in the last year alone you have had Tell It To the Bees, Ammonite and the best of the bunch, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, to name just a few. The World to Come is a little different from the others, because it’s a semi-Western, even if it’s actually set in the East in the frontier land of upstate New York.

The always reliable Katherine Waterston plays Abigail, who lives out on her farm with her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck). It’s a fairly routine rural life of that time. She keeps a journal, and her entries narrate the great majority of the film. Spring comes and Tally (Vanessa Kirby) moves into a nearby farm with her husband Finney, played by Christopher Abbot in another notch-in-the-belt of his career of playing through and throughscumbags. They become fast friends. Tally is the first person Abigail is able to open up to emotionally, and a romance soon blossoms.

The aspect of the film that makes it unique compared to many of these other lesbian period dramas is that it’s set during a time when the two woman would not have had any framework for a same-sex attraction, so it’s a completely alien concept to them. If you do any minimal research (i.e. a Google search), you will find that during the period when the film is set, the mid 19th century, homosexual behaviour was commonplace and actually many people were surprisingly OK with it. It wasn’t till the late 19th century and the early 20th century that modern concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality came it place. Obviously, their relationship does cause issues later on, and without spoiling anything, it’s equally alien to the men as it is to the women. The title works on a few levels, it refers to a world to come that is more accepting but also the world approaching more immediately, where you can be punished for whom you love.

Visually, the film evokes Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which is never a bad starting place for inspiration when you are making western. The film has that simultaneously harsh but enchanting atmosphere that made Altman’s film so great. It’s a world that really feels lived in, and that gives it a real authenticity. Especially for those making filmson a smaller budget, this is something that can’t replicated, and its lack often makes the those films DOA. It also is shot in 16mm which gives it’s a a filmic quality which is increasingly are in this over usage of digital cinematographer, shooting this film digitally would’ve been criminal.

Ron Hansen co-wrote the script with Jim Shepard, who wrote the original short on which it’s based. Hansen was also the co-screenwriter on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford which, although not necessarily considered a romance, does feature an undeniable homoerotic undercurrent between Ford and Jesse James (just the way Casey Affleck’s Ford looks at James, for example.) Mona Fastvold most certainly used that film as a reference, and I’m sure the fact Hansen wrote both was partly what attracted her. I assume Affleck was part of the package, as he is also a producer on The World to Come.

Waterstone has the more complex role: it’s told almost entirely through her point of view, often using voice-over and entries from the diary. The narration gives it a slight Terrence Malick feel, but it’s never too derivative, and only Malick can ever pull off a film that is almost entirely voice-over. It’s used more here than in typical films, but the moments are carefully chosen. Kirby might give the best performance, though she really encapsulates the free spirit of Tally that loosens up Waterstone’s stoic Abigail. Affleck, who is one of the greatest living actors but got “#MeTooed” to hell, is attempting to carve a quiet comeback here. He is sensational, especially with what he doesn’t do: he is one of those actors who can express everything with just their face. He has “sad eyes,” which for an actor can be one of their greatest assets, i.e. Timothy Bottoms in The Last Picture Show. He and Abbott give very strong performances in what could otherwise be under-written characters. Abbott brings a natural intensity to everything he does, which rubs off here.

Overall, The World to Come is a beautiful film to look at, and the two actresses have real natural chemistry, something the two leads in Ammonite seriously lacked. It was a strong film to finish Sundance 2021, and Mona Fastvold is a filmmaker to keep an eye out for. The film is set for a theatrical run in the US on the 12th of February, just in time for Valentine’s Day, with VOD release on the 2nd of March. The UK release is slated for exactly two months later, on the 2nd of April, butwith the on-going COVID pandemic all this could easily change, Sony is releasing it in the UK, so hopefully it will also have a theatrical release.

★★★★

Ian Schultz

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