Festivals, Reviews

Sundance 2021: ‘The World to Come’—Another White Lesbian Period Film

Spoilers ahead.

The World to Come is another white lesbian period film. After the success of Portrait of a Lady on Fire and the mixed reception of Ammonite, it seems this subgenre of LGBT romance found an audience that would constantly eat it up (including me!). Directed by Norwegian director Mona Fastvold, who co-wrote the story of Vox Lux, the film had its world premiere last year in Venice and graced North American screens in Sundance. 

Adapted from a short story by Jim Shepard, who also wrote the screenplay, The World to Come is set in New York state a few years before the Civil War. It is told from the point of view of Abigail (Katherine Waterston) as she narrates her diary, showing us the specific dates of the events that would unfold. Dealing with the loss of her daughter, she and her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck), a farmer with an affinity for machinery, choose to grieve separately. The film frames the atmosphere between them with the bleak backdrop of Romania, serving the audience the countryside of New York state. 

As they live their monotonous life, a couple passes by their farm: Finney (the wonderful Christopher Abbott, who also has another film in the Sundance slate) and his wife Tallie (an amazing Vanessa Kirby, who is making rounds in the awards circuit for her other film Pieces of a Woman). Tallie catches the attention of Abigail and the two are introduced.

Fastvold’s study of these two lonely women finding “astonishment and joy” from each other, as Abigail chants after kissing Tallie, is gut-wrenching. Cinematographer Andre Chemetoff perfectly captures the atmosphere of their feelings and the fate of their relationship through the bleakness of the setting. The score by Daniel Blumberg definitely grabbed my attention as he composes powerful pieces for this film (especially in the snowstorm scene), and it’s probably my favorite component of the film.

Performances from the two leads were beautiful: Kirby and Waterston definitely had strong chemistry on screen that captivated me. As for Abbott and Affleck, their characters were both unsupportive husbands who dealt with their wives in different ways. Abbott’s Finney was a misogynist who got violent with Tallie. It’s surprising to see Abbott play such an infuriating character after being in roles that I enjoyed, specifically in On the Count of Three which is also at Sundance. Affleck, on the other hand, approaches Dyer with subtlety; his character was actually understanding of Abigail. But these supporting characters were irrelevant: ultimately, this is a film that explores the relationship of two women.

Written in prose with a heavy reliance on Waterston’s voiceover of the diary, there is no argument that the script is beautifully written. However, the choice of killing off Tallie by the end was something that bothered me. After the film screening, I asked the director what led to the decision to kill her off: I found out it was the fate written for Tallie in the short story, which unbeknownst to me was written by a man. Fastvold also said it was sentimental to end the film with Abigail and the vision of Tallie together as they move on. 

Perhaps this works for the story, but there have already been so many LGBT films that kill off their characters due to the nature of their sexuality. The “bury your gays” trope is overused; it’s tiring for me, someone who identifies as part of the LGBT who just wants to watch a film that doesn’t end in tragedy. However, it must not be forgotten that at the time, a man killing his wife was common, something mentioned halfway through the film by Finney.

The World to Come both captivates and frustrates the viewer; that balance is what made the film compelling to me. Comparisons to its contemporaries cannot be avoided, but this film is definitely different. Nobody dies in Portrait and Ammonite, so this one is more tragic than the two. This could have ended differently and it would still work but alas, it’s not what the story demanded. Overall, it’s a decent film with beautiful components that tells the story of two lonely women trying to find joy in their lives.

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