The World to Come

Review by Rich Cline | 2.5/5

The World to Come
dir Mona Fastvold
scr Ron Hansen, Jim Shepard
prd Casey Affleck, Whitaker Lader, Pamela Koffler, David Hinojosa, Margarethe Baillou
with Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, Casey Affleck, Christopher Abbott, Karina Gherasim, Kim Ciobanu, Daniel Blumberg, Andreea Vasile, Liana Navrot, Sandra J House, James Longshore
release US 12.Feb.21,
UK 2.Apr.21
20/US Bleecker Street 1h38

waterston affleck abbott

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waterston and kirby
Hushed to the point of being downright dour, this low-key period drama gets into the mind of a woman who finds unexpected purpose in her life. Norwegian director Mona Fastvold evokes a strong visual sensibility, vividly creating the time and place on-screen while slowly opening up options for the central character. This brings a welcome hint of lightness to the film, although the story structure is mopey and repetitive.
In snowy Upstate New York in 1856, Abigail and Dyer (Waterston and Affleck) shiver on their isolated farm, quietly grieving over the death of their young daughter. Then as spring arrives, Abigail brightens up when she meets new neighbour Tallie (Kirby), who has moved to a nearby farm with her husband Finney (Abbott). Abigail is surprised by her reaction to Tallie, drawn to her beauty but confused by their connection, realising that Tallie offers a romantic spark that she could never imagine having with Dyer. So they need to keep their meetings secret.
The story is recounted with whispery voiceover from Abigail's poetic, rather oddly self-aware journals, offering an emotional counterpoint to her repressed behaviour. These reveal the lack of intimacy in her marriage and how getting closer to Tallie makes her blossom. Conversely, the dialog is stilted period-speak delivered with earthy touches. And as months pass, there's a nagging sense that this forbidden romance can't end well, although the reasons why feel pointed rather than authentic.

There's an intriguing and perhaps awkward contrast between the two lead performances, with Waterston's tentative coyness facing Kirby's worldly openness. As they get closer, sharing their thoughts and feelings, they both acknowledge their mutual attraction, but understandably are constrained not to directly address it in public. Thankfully, they liven up when they admit it in private. Meanwhile, Affleck and a sparkier Abbott offer effective hangdog turns as callous men who don't understand why they're feeling left out.

There's a sense that Fastvold thinks life was dull and subdued in the 19th century. But people were just as energetic and passionate, and probably didn't speak in such carefully constructed full sentences. This overwritten dialog, perhaps imported directly from Shepard's source story, continually throws us out of the narrative. It may offer some thematic interest relating to the need to find our place in the world, but it never quite reveals the inner lives of the characters. Thankfully the actors do this adeptly, and they're reason enough to watch.

cert 15 themes, sexuality 23.Dec.20

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© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall