Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby as Abigail and TallieTWITTER/FINALDRAFTINC

“With little pride and less hope, we begin the new year.”

The World to Come (dir. Mona Fastvold, 2020) is narrated through the diary entries of protagonist Abigail (Katherine Waterston), who documents her life on the 19th century American frontier. Ostensibly, Abigail is a dutiful farmer’s wife and a bereaved mother, but her vivacious interiority, thirst for knowledge and suppressed desires are what come to the surface in this period drama. After the arrival of new neighbours, the enigmatic Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and her husband Finney (Christopher Abbott), tensions emerge in both marriages. Abigail feels an instant connection with Tallie, and what begins as a close friendship, based on mutual understanding, tentatively develops into romance. The bond between the two women, which becomes essential to their survival as their relationships with their husbands deteriorate, is tested by their complete lack of autonomy in the world they inhabit.

“The film emphasises the deep sense of solidarity involved in lesbian relationships.”

The landscape of the film feels as much a part of the narrative as the characters themselves — simultaneously suffocating and liberating, and reminiscent of the countryside depicted in Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1975). Fastvold has cited Tarkovsky as being hugely influential to her as a director, and this is particularly evident in the human relationship to nature in the film. The rhythms of the characters’ lives are inextricably intertwined with the unrelenting force of the elements: rain separates the lovers for days on end, while snow threatens their livelihood. During a snowstorm, Abigail has to tie herself to the farmhouse with a rope to avoid being swept away — a gesture which is blatantly symbolic of her inability to venture far from its confines. The farmhouse, situated alone at the bottom of a valley, places Abigail in complete isolation with her emotionally distant husband Dyer (Casey Affleck), but also offers the possibility of secrecy and illicit meetings. Shot attentively on 16mm film, with Andre Chemtoff as director of photography, the rural setting displays all its pluralities.

Abigail and Tallie manage to carve out small moments in which they can be alone together, which are juxtaposed with excruciatingly awkward encounters between the two couples. Although sparse (one critic has pointed out that spoken words are even fewer and further between than in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire) language is nevertheless a crucial element of the film. In her diary and in her letters to Tallie, Abigail is able to express the dreams and desires which she finds herself unable to speak out loud. The voiceover of her written words brings the viewer into an intimate relationship with her, as the powerful and all-consuming yearning, simmering beneath her calm exterior, becomes evident. Tallie is more forward than Abigail, initiating the conversation which transforms their relationship, even though she doesn’t have such a way with words (her attempts at writing poetry are affectionately laughed at). There is a stark difference between the fluidity and joyousness of the private moments between the two women, and the stilted conversation which passes between them under the watchful eyes of their husbands.

“What comes to the foreground in the end is the sheer necessity of the relationship between Abigail and Tallie.”

Fastvold does not fall into the trap of romanticising the forbidden romance element of the plot, but rather highlights how viscerally painful and claustrophobic it is for women not to have autonomy, prioritising nuance over gratuitous tragedy. Finney and Dyer are not entirely damned for the role they play in the oppression of their wives, but rather shown as equally lost and desperate, albeit in different ways. As well as providing a pensive, painful insight into the inner lives of women held captive by a patriarchal society, the film allows its male characters to briefly escape the rigid archetypes that they usually occupy in lesbian period dramas, and experience frustration, loss and desperation of their own. The film is extremely bleak (it explores the emotional impact of infant mortality and domestic violence), but also beautifully tinged with hope and the fleeting potential for change and rebirth.

The fact that The World to Come (predictably) culminates in tragedy does not diminish its power. Its title hints at what is at its core: a fervent desire on the part of both women for something more than what they have, but also a sense of resignation at its unattainability (“What calm I enjoy does not derive from the notion of a better world to come”). The constant reaching for the distant notions of freedom and independence is heartbreakingly frustrating to witness, but what comes to the foreground in the end is the sheer necessity of the relationship between Abigail and Tallie. In the words of Katherine Waterston: “It is not just love at first sight, but life at first sight.” They can relate to each other and provide support in ways no one else can. Through this, the film emphasises the deep sense of solidarity involved in lesbian relationships. Fastvold is successful in allowing the characters and images to speak for themselves, telling stories of oppression, of blossoming hope, and of moments of shared peace and understanding within a hostile world.

The World to Come will be released on streaming services in the UK on April 2nd.


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