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Sundance 2021 Review: The World to Come – “Beautifully composed”

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Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Vlad Cioplea.

Our story begins January 1st, 1856, the winter already a frigid companion on an upstate New York farm where Abigail (Katherine Waterston) lives with her husband, Dyer (Casey Affleck). Just as Dyer keeps a ledger to keep track of the comings and goings on the farm, Abigail is keeping a journal in an effort to tell the stories that aren’t told amongst farm equipment to be fixed or outstanding bills. “I have become my grief,” she writes, still reeling from the death of her daughter from diphtheria that fall.  She goes through the motions of her farm chores, milking the cows and making meals, day after day in a state of despondency.  Her and Dyer are amiable but not affectionate, living together, but not truly living.

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Then one day a new couple move to a neighbouring farm and Abigail is introduced to Tallie (Vanessa Kirby).  The connection is instant, and Abigail begins to look forward to Tallie’s daily visits that become longer, and longer.  “There is something going on between us that I can’t unravel,” Abigail details, and slowly but surely happiness starts to creep back into her life, pushing the grief aside.  Initially Dyer is pleased that his wife seems to have turned a corner, but as the relationship between the two women intensifies, both husbands start to complain about their wives’ absence and their lack of work on the farms.  Tallie’s husband, Finney (Christopher Abbott) in particular becomes cruel and bitter, the repercussions threatening Abigail and Tallie’s intimate connection.

The World to Come is director Mona Fastvold‘s second feature, her first being 2012’s The Sleepwalker.  Here she creates a melancholy tone, working with cinematographer André Chemetoff in 16mm to add grit and texture to the film.  The landscapes surrounding the story of Abigail and Tallie are beautiful and often shot in tones of grey, fog, or even snow that really demonstrate their isolation and remoteness.  The score from Daniel Blumberg is a distinctive but welcome companion that comes to a notable discordant climax of woodwinds during a particularly dire snowstorm.

Waterston carries most of the film, it being presented almost entirely from Abigail’s perspective, however, all four main cast members are excellent here.  There is intense chemistry between Waterston and Kirby, a requirement as you don’t see the vast majority of their physical relationship as it plays out.  But their sexual tension and affection is palpable.  The dialogue and indeed the journal entries told in voice over by Waterston are lyrical and poetic, almost Shakespearean in nature, demanding your attention.  Written by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, the language here almost becomes its own romantic character.  It’s something that might divide viewers and takes some getting used to, but getting to know Abigail it starts to make sense.

The World to Come is a quiet period drama, a love story, a portrait of grief.  It also examines women’s contributions to that era and how they have gotten erased over time.  There are a lot of great components here, but they largely play out, unfortunately, as anticipated and in a very slow-paced way.  While the chemistry of the two leads is powerful and passionate, and the film beautifully composed, this slow burn and its heartbreaking romance never lands as emotionally as it should.

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