Over a year after Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant loosed each other’s corsets and fell in love in a French Cannes film, and less than a week before Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet are due to do the same in coastal England at TIFF, Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby play American, mid-19th century secret lesbian lovers in Mona Fastvold‘s Venice competition title “The World to Come,” a beautiful and quiet, seasons-spanning tale of poetry and pining pioneerwomen. Set in 1850s rural upstate New York, it’s delivered in careful, spare 16mm that echoes, in its artisanal, handcrafted loveliness, the painstaking, slightly crooked hand-written calligraphy in which the film’s titles and intertitles are written. 

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“Fair, and very cold” are the first words of Waterston’s mellow, autumnal voiceover, as her character, Abigail shares confidences both intimate and banally weather-related with the bookkeeping notepad that doubles as her diary. Abigail is married to Dyer (Casey Affleck), a pragmatic, if quietly disappointed fellow sometimes frustrated by his wife’s writerly propensity for dreaminess. Both are grieving the recent loss of their five-year-old daughter Nellie to diphtheria, though the amount of work to be done to keep their little farm going, especially through a harsh winter, hardly gives them time to dwell. Dyer is not an unkind husband, but the philosophical differences between him and Abigail are cleverly described by the different ways they approach the written word. For Dyer, it’s useful as a record of bills and debts, of household expenses, and the income and outgoing that represents his mark upon the world. But for Abigail, it is her mark upon the world, less a record of what she has done in her life than the thing itself, a creative expression of all she has thought and felt. Dyer is a ledger; Abigail is a journal.

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The quiet grief of their neat wooden home is disturbed by the arrival of new neighbors, Tallie (Kirby) and her husband Finney (Christopher Abbott). It’s a disturbance Abigail quickly comes to cherish, and as Tallie visits increasingly frequently while Dyer is not around, Abigail’s diary entries become increasingly lovelorn until one day Tallie, the more forthright of the two, makes a declaration and their affair begins in earnest. Gratifyingly, although of necessity they keep it secret, neither woman is ever ashamed of their love. Neither has internalized the religious and moral strictures of the day to the degree that they can believe what they feel to be a sin, neither feels the need to struggle against the sweetness of their union.

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“The World To Come” is based on a short story by novelist Jim Shepard, and adapted by him and Ron Hansen, the author of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” And so Casey Affleck who was an unforgettable Ford in Andrew Dominik‘s film, slots seamlessly back into this world, albeit in a far smaller role. Waterston too has a sort of timeless quality that makes her very believable as Abigail, a shy, dutiful autodidact with a deep desire, not comprehended by Dyer, to improve herself and expand her knowledge of the world. She is saving to buy an atlas, and when Dyer jokingly suggests she should spend the money on a gift for her husband instead, she replies mildly “What better gift could I make to you than a wife who is not a dullard?”

The World To Come Katherine Waterston Casey Affleck

It’s in the casting of the new arrivals, however, that Fastvold gives her film – otherwise classical to a fault in presentation – its most interesting textures. Kirby, even with a cascade of red hair tumbling down her back in place of her more familiar straggly blonde, still has an edge of modernity to her, a mischief and an independence of spirit which makes for compelling chemistry with Waterston. And Abbott, here reuniting with Fastvold after her excellent, atmospheric debut “The Sleepwalker,” despite relatively little screen time, makes Finney into a fascinatingly angular, contradictory character, by turns charming and sinister and far less forgiving of his wife’s transgressions than Dyer is of Abigail’s. 

André Chemetoff‘s photography is gorgeously stark, often finding high drama in the elements – as when a terrifying and destructive blizzard keeps the women separated for a time. And Daniel Blumberg‘s music is another crucially expressive element, its lonesome, atonal whines, and drones adding atmosphere largely without the emotional manipulation of melody. If there is a flaw in Fastvold’s approach, it’s that the exceptional elements she assembles, from performance to costuming to imagery to sound design, all become somewhat secondary to the words, perhaps a factor of two novelists writing the screenplay. Structured around Abigail’s diary entries – admittedly beautifully written, full of faltering lyricism that creates metaphors for longing and yearning from the waterfalls and leaves and precipices of the unforgiving surrounding landscape – it’s a film that tends to tell more than it shows. This subdues the drama and sometimes tamps down the embers of the story – a kind of “Portrait of a Lady on Low Heat” – when we might wish to see them set on fire. 

But then, while “The World to Come” is a love story, and has its all-too-brief moments of fumbling passion and blissed-out mutual reverie, the overall impression, perfectly evoked, is of isolation. Not just for the women, trapped on the homestead while their husbands stride about the world, but the men too, equally straitjacketed by social expectations, the merciless elements and their incomprehension of their wives’ interior lives. In a way the men of the film are even worse off than the women, and not just because they experience no similar, nourishing soulmate connection. Abigail and Tallie have been brought up to expect little from life except disappointment: when Abigail mentions her admiration for the homesteaders of years past, who forged whole futures from nothing in this difficult country, Tallie demurs: “Perhaps they had a high hopefulness that we don’t have.” To the men, by contrast, the discovery that following all the proper rules of this tightly codified world cannot guarantee them happiness, or the love or even the respect of their womenfolk, seems to come as a painful ongoing surprise. Although arranged around a fulfilling, life-changing connection “The World to Come” is a deeply lonesome lovesong. [B/B+]

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