As someone who is generally not a fan of Westerns, there have been a few films within the last decade that have been set in 19th century American isolated frontiers that have caught my eye and I’ve ended up loving – and these are the ones centred around women. From Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010), through to Emma Tammi’s The Wind (2018), David Perrault’s Savage State (2019) and Thomas Robert Lee’s The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw (2020), these films take the focus away from the traditional rugged masculinity of 1950s’ Westerns and highlight that life was equally, if not more, tough for the women in these harsh environments. Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come, which was shown at Venice 2020 and Sundance 2021 is a new addition to what is currently a niche sub-genre and may well be the best one yet.
Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Dyer (Casey Affleck) are a married couple living in Upstate New York, for whom life is tough and bleak. The film opens (on January 1, 1856) only a few months after their young daughter has been lost to diphtheria; “with little pride and less hope, we begin the new year.” Into this grey and drab world comes a breath of fresh air – new ‘neighbours’ (although their house is some distance away) – Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and Finney (Christopher Abbott). Tallie takes a shine to the shy and reserved Abigail and starts visiting her frequently, opening up a world of possibility for her.
There are two main reasons that this film maybe hasn’t been given a fair shake – the ‘proliferance’ of period films featuring white women falling in love recently – 2018 alone had four of them – Vita & Virginia, Tell it to the Bees, Wild Nights with Emily and The Favourite, then there was 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire and 2020’s Ammonite – as covered in this article by Jenni Holtz on Historical Lesbian Cinema. The other is the presence of Casey Affleck as both an actor and producer. While all of these are, of course, valid concerns and your tolerance will vary, The World to Come is worth giving a chance, for its performances, cinematography (by Andre Chemetoff), costume design (by Luminita Lungu) and perhaps most of all – its mind-meltingly good score by Daniel Blumberg.
Despite being mixed on Katherine Waterston in the past, she is perfectly cast here and the heavy amount of narration from her character, Abigail, really works in the context of the film. Abigail is writing a personal diary in the family’s ledger – an official record of income and outgoings which Dyer treats in a dry, professional manner, but which she wants to serve as a record of the highs and lows of their lives, especially their inner lives – their hopes, wishes and dreams. The narration combines with the sound design and incredible score to create a richly layered and at times, overwhelming soundscape in the film. While period films tend to go for classically orchestrated scores that are heavy on strings or piano, Blumberg uses wind instruments such as clarinet and oboe to create what sounds at times like an avant-garde jazz score. The highlight is a spectacular blizzard which Tallie gets caught in on the way back from one of her regular visits to Abigail, in which the instrumentation is whipped up into a frenzy.
The acting from the central four is perfectly attuned to the context and setting of an 1850’s small farming community. Christopher Abbott, who has been having a stellar couple of years (Possessor, Black Bear etc) is typically great as the abrasive Finney, who talks AT people and doesn’t see or hear who his wife really is. Vanessa Kirby is finally getting the central roles she deserves, and has been rewarded with an Oscar nomination this year for Pieces of a Woman. It is easy to see why this red-haired, rosy-cheeked bright-and-breezy woman makes such an impression on the insular Abigail. Tallie even composes a poem for Abigail, like a teen in love and brings her the atlas that she covets for her birthday (for Abigail is seeking to educate herself). Dyer is well-intentioned, he wants to be close to his wife and for them both to move on with their grief. But he doesn’t have the time to talk with her, as Tallie does and we know there’s nothing more attractive than a good listener.
The ending of The World to Come will probably prove controversial and I understand those who will find it frustrating. There is an inevitability to it that comes with the context of the time, which is why, of course, we do need more contemporary LGBTQ+ stories. The ending fitted seamlessly into this particular story for me and I was swept up in the entire film, from beginning to end. Fastvold and Chemetoff have created some indelible images and Blumberg’s score will undoubtedly make a lasting impression, making The World to Come stand out in its particular genres – as a Western, as a ‘historical lesbian’ film – and as 2021’s best film so far.
The World to Come is available on VOD in the US now and in the UK from 1 April 2021.