Mona Fastvold's moving frontier drama, with fine work from Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby, doesn't waste a moment
It’s been six years between Mona Fastvold’s directorial debut The Sleepwalker and The World to Come, her sophomore effort, but in that time she’s been a key figure in a couple of the best and most striking films of the last half-decade, having co-written Childhood of a Leader and Vox Lux alongside husband Brady Corbet. For the most part, her latest sits comfortably aside such rarefied company, a passionate tale of romance and friendship told with an extraordinary economy of expression.
Set on the lonely frontier of 1856 upstate New York, The World to Come follows, and is narrated by, Abigail (Katherine Waterston), a woman scraping out an existence on a farm alongside her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck). Each of them is unsatisfied with this life – both have dreams of finding more intellectually satisfying work – a sadness made much, much worse by the loss of their young daughter to diphtheria, but they get by as best they can.
Fastvold and writers Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard (adapting Shepard’s original short story) tell the story of this marriage incredibly well, letting small details fill in vast swathes of backstory. Dyer can be gruff, while Abigail is distant, but there is genuine affection between the two and Dyer allows Abigail as much freedom and privacy as she wants. He’s a man with modern sensibilities, or at least he wants to believe he is, and as the pair grapple with Abigail's burgeoning proto-feminist worldview, The World to Come refuses to take the predictable path, granting them a quiet, consistent dignity that grounds their emotions in an earthy, compelling reality.
Grief and loneliness weigh heavily on Abigail, but she and Dyer can only meekly express their true feelings, so the arrival of the confident Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), wife of Old Testament-quoting monster Finney (Christopher Abbott), is thrilling both for her and the audience. In a colour palette previously dominated by greys and browns, Tallie’s pale skin and fiery red hair let her shine as a beacon – one that Abigail is immediately, irresistibly drawn to.
Waterston and Kirby have a deeply felt chemistry from the moment they share the screen, and even as Abigail and Tallie go from strangers to friends to lovers rather quickly, their relationship never feels rushed or underdeveloped. The combination of Abigail’s voiceover and clever character beats that balance relatability with honesty to the time period keeps the plot skipping along gracefully, packing a lot into a runtime that barely crosses 90 minutes.
Actually filmed in Romania, the frontier-era New York landscapes are both gorgeous and imposing. We first see Abigail’s farmstead in the dead of winter, an icy prison that requires bruisingly hard work to survive. A blizzard scene is particularly well-executed by Fastvold, who takes an almost theatrical approach to the storm, using blindingly harsh white light and a discordant score instead of more conventional or overblown weather effects. As the film presses on into the spring and summer, it’s as much of a relief to us as it is to Abigail. The valley takes on a new beauty, the animals are much happier, and the bright days and long, warm evenings give a thrilling new spark to Abigail and Tallie’s romance.
The World to Come stumbles a bit in the ending, which feels too sudden for a film that is otherwise so careful and considered, but that doesn’t do much to mar a sumptuously designed and sharply written love story that finds love and warmth in a lonely pocket of history. It’s a history populated by people who feel very real and current – from Abigail’s dreams of travel to Dyer’s love of new technology and Tallie’s amusingly rubbish love poems – transcending the formal stuffiness that can stifle period romances. Something starkly beautiful emerges as a result.
The World to Come is showing in cinemas from 23 July.Where to watch