Synopsis: Somewhere along the mid-19th century American East Coast frontier, two neighboring couples battle hardship and isolation, witnessed by a splendid yet testing landscape, challenging them both physically and psychologically.
Stars: Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, Casey Affleck, Christopher Abbott
Director: Mona Fastvold
Running Length: 98 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: There’s something strange about the way that movies have treated the love affairs between women over the last few years (and probably longer) because it seems that they just can’t catch a break. In films like Carol, The Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Ammonite, etc. the passion and connection established is born in the midst of severe strife and is more often than not left unfulfilled. This observance is nothing new to be sure and in fact it’s what many critics and even casual film fans have noted for a number of years as one of the chief rules of love between same sex couples onscreen. There must be pain. Loss is a given. Happiness is rare. It’s the guiding principle for screenwriting, it seems.
Here we are in February of a new year and already there’s another example to prove the case. However, there’s a lot more problematic in The World to Come than the way it shows the relationship between two dreary farmer’s wives in the mid-19th century. Unique in that it features beautiful cinematography that is at the same time strikingly dull to behold, the entire film feels like a quilt that’s been left outside overnight during a rainstorm that you now are asked to snuggle up with. It’s chilly, musty, wet, and heavy, offering little in the way of comfort or care. You certainly can’t see any intricates that went into the making of it because it has been overtaken by the elements.
Adapted by Jim Shepard and Ron Hansen from Shepard’s original short story, The World to Come creaks to life with Katherine Waterston croaking through stilted narration detailing farm life with her husband (Casey Affleck, Our Friend) in upstate New York. Though meant to convey an old-tyme-y vibe, the dialogue often winds up sounding like an outdated script from a historical walking tour; a line about Affleck’s quiet farmer needing to fetch “calico” and “shoe leather” officially did me in. This era of living was tough, to be sure, but Waterston’s (Inherent Vice) Abigail pitches her monotone line readings far too dreary from the jump, she’s so wrist-slittingly somber that you can’t blame Affleck as Dyer for withdrawing in favor of keeping his head down to work with the farm animals that at least acknowledge his presence.
A ray of fiery happiness arrives when Tallie (Vanessa Kirby, Me Before You) and Finney (Christopher Abbott, Possessor) rent the farm nearby. Sensing a kinship with the outspoken woman, Abigail becomes fascinated with Tallie and the chance for connection at a deeper level. That Tallie responds in kind makes each day a little brighter for Abigail and she finds a new reason for maintaining the farm and herself…even while Tallie struggles to keep her own husband happy. Finney is different than Dyer in that the more Tallie retreats from him the more forceful he becomes, and the question gets to be how far can she pull away before he either lets her go one way or another? As the women grow closer, the danger of being found out increases but they are emboldened by their newfound freedom of emotional joy. It won’t last…and you know that’s not a spoiler.
Norwegian actor turned director Mona Fastvold seems to understand the key to the film is the bond between Abigail and Tallie but she forgets there needs to be some sort of knowledge of the men in their lives as well to make their clandestine relationship have essential meaning in turn. Waterston is arguably the main character and there’s just a lot of her moping around the farm avoiding her husband and checking her invisible watch wondering where Tallie is. That’s not the sweeping romance the ads for this movie are promising, let me assure you. So it’s almost up to Kirby and Abbott to keep the fire of the film burning hot and they can’t stoke it all on their own. They almost get there, almost, in a tense dinner scene near the end that tells us far more about their relationship in those few minutes than we’ve learned about Abigail and Dyer in the previous sixty. Abbott’s character is quite the unrelenting pig of a husband and he’s gotten aces at playing these type of abhorrent men…maybe too good. For me, it came down to Kirby as the one bright spot the film has to offer and it’s the single treasure The World to Come is entirely stingy with. Whenever she’s onscreen, there’s some pulse to it, even if it’s faint. However, when she’s absent the movie is cold as ice.
Filmed in Romania subbing for NY, cinematographer André Chemetoff gets some picturesque shots in but most of what we see comes off as less pastoral and fertile and more grubby and worked over. Totally incongruous with the tone and images is musician Daniel Blumberg’s obtrusive score, giving off the feeling that the composer didn’t see the film he was contributing to. It’s just another part of the overall puzzling nature of The World to Come, composed of a bunch of pieces that might work well in their own right but fail to form a complete picture. More than anything, I’m just over these tortured love affairs for same sex couples…this feels like a construct that should be put out to pasture. Let love win for once, I beg of you.