On the chilly morning of January 1st, 1856, a woman begins a diary to document the happenings of her daily life. Through a measured yet poetic recounting of the mundane events of her morning, the audience is introduced to Abigail (Katherine Waterston), the main character of director Mona Fastvold’s sophomore feature, The World to Come. Adapted from the short story by Jim Shephard, The World to Come follows the tender hurricane of a romance between Abigail and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby).
Both dissatisfied with their home lives and husbands, Abigail and Tallie discover solace in their relationship. In direct contrast to their husbands who expect an obedient wife to change herself to fit his desires, the pair finds delight in each other just as they are. They give each other the invaluable gift of being seen. Their dreary worlds light up in a way that is tangible and deeply human. Waterston’s gradual escape from her quiet melancholy is a joy to watch. Her stolen glances and occasional smiles are executed graciously. In her performance, Waterston allows the viewer into the world of a woman overcome by love for the first time. Kirby’s crackling charisma pairs well with the repression of self and desire displayed in Waterston’s performance.
In addition to impressive performances from the two leads, the cinematography is effective in matching the intimate quality of Abigail’s diary entries.The camera lingers on the hands of the women as they perform their daily chores, expressing the importance and value of tasks that are often deemed unimportant or easy. The intimate camera work is paired with a gorgeous, swooning horn-filled score by Daniel Blumberg.
The aforementioned picturesque landscapes and stunning score cannot salvage the film from an overwhelming feeling of dread. We have seen these stories of star-crossed women in love during times of severe societal prejudice. As an audience, we know how this story will end, because we have seen its end before. The problem with the eventual brutality of The World to Come is not that the plot (or an ever so slight variation of it) has been done many times before, but the aimlessness of it all. Most viewers are aware of how men have brutalized their wives throughout history. As women, we are reminded of it constantly, and the violence against women displayed in this film, while no means egregious or offensive, does not seem to serve any purpose in advancing a conversation about how queer women have been treated by straight men throughout history.
The entire plot and relationship of the main characters is wound tightly around what will happen to them when their relationship is uncovered by their husbands. Just like the handling of violence against women, the plot stumbles through the platitudes and tropes of forbidden lovers in an extramarital affair, providing nothing fresh or interesting to a topic (specifically in romance films about gay and lesbian couples) that has been written into the ground.
Any spark the two leads share is flattened by the 90s-esque lesbian movie tropes, including a predictable tragedy in the third act. While the film may not be nearly as exploitative as its predecessors, it fails to answer a simple question: why was this film made? Love stories, no matter the gender(s) of the partners involved do not need to be unchallenging to make for a rewarding story, but they do need to prove their reason for existence. The World to Come fails to do so.