Producers: Casey Affleck, Whitaker Lader, Pamela Koffler, David Hinojosa and Margarethe Baillou Director: Mona Fastvold Screenplay: Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard Cast: Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, Christopher Abbott, Casey Affleck and Karina Ziana Gherasim Distributor: Bleecker Street
There are epistolary novels; this might be called a diary movie, composed of a series of entries for the year 1856 written by Abigail (Katherine Waterston), the unhappy wife of Dyer (Casey Affleck), a taciturn farmer in upstate New York. She reads bits of the text in reams of narration, which are then dramatized by director Mona Fastvold against the drab sets designed by Jean Vincent Puzos and shot in equally drab tones by cinematographer André Chemetoff. (Luminita Lungu’s costumes are certainly without frills, too.)
Abigail, we’re shown in flashback, has a good deal to be unhappy about. Her lovely little daughter Nellie (Karina Ziana Gherasim) was recently carried off by diphtheria. Her grief explains why, when we see the community going off to church, she remarks in voiceover that she no longer looks for happiness in the world to come.
As it happens, however, she soon finds it instead in this one, with the arrival of new neighbors Finney (Christopher Abbott) and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby)—especially the latter. Tallie is a vivacious redhead, and when she comes over to visit, the connection between them is immediate. For a considerable time it remains in the realm of sisterly friendship, but eventually turns into something more.
Yes, “The World to Come” is another period tale of same-sex love, following “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “Ammonite.” Quite honestly it’s not up to the standard of either of those films, but it has substantial virtues, not least the performances of Waterston and Kirby, the one remarkable for the gradual unfolding of passion and the other for vitality and sheer attractiveness.
Beside the wives, the husbands are both decidedly dour. Affleck’s Dyer just seems undemonstrative, more concerned with expenditures and accounts than any shows of affection, though he’s clearly grateful for Abigail’s ministrations when she nurses him through an illness and suggests they might try to have another child. Abbott’s Finney, on the other hand, is a surlier sort, who is angered by Tallie’s refusal to perform what he sees as her spousal duties and evinces a brutal streak besides.
In terms of outcome, the film is closer to “Portrait” than “Ammonite,” with a close that suggests a sad cycle at work. The mostly downbeat tone is italicized by Dávid Jancsó’s editing, which might be charitably described as unhurried, and Daniel Blumberg’s score, which is understandably somber, save for scenes where the women connect in the woods. (Spring does come, though what one is likely to remember are the blizzard scenes.)
“The World to Come” follows a template that is becoming increasingly familiar, and doesn’t advance the formula to any great degree. And in the end, it feels more about the present than the past, despite the period trappings.