You smell like biscuits. Of all the details comprising Tallie and Abigail’s first kiss in Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come, this reaction, which comes from Abigail, may be the most surprising and disarming — moreso, even, than the fact that it’s a kiss between two married women in 19th-century America. It’s a covert but not wholly unexpected gesture between wives whose passions seem only to spring to life while their husbands are away. It’s a surprising line, in part, for containing so much. You smell like biscuits: like comfort, like domestic life, like women’s work, like the familiar. Like — stripped of the implicit insult — a wife.
Which is what Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), married to Finney (Christopher Abbott), is trying her best to be, given the circumstances, just as Abigail (Katherine Waterston), married to Dyer (Casey Affleck), is attempting the same, and similarly having a tough time with it, though the circumstances are not the same. Abigail and Dyer have just lost a child. They have not reckoned with this grief — whatever that would entail. Tallie and Finney, their new neighbors, who have just started renting a house just down the way, have their own wedge to deal with, in the form of a passionless marriage in which a child has yet to be conceived. Both women feel a bit unmoored from their function as wives, accordingly. Though their husbands are dissimilar men — one brims with violence while the other suppresses it, though he doesn’t quite subvert it — both women feel beholden to the restrictions of their marriages, busy with the work expected of them. Both take solace in their blooming friendship, nurtured out of view of their men, until the men can’t help but notice. And both women are better, more alive, for having met each other.
But The World to Come is full of inversions, deviations from the usual themes, complicated as it is by interlocking contrasts, unexpected emphases. This is a movie in which love springs in winter, whereas spring beckons devastation. Nature itself is, by turns, ominous, beautiful, and overbearing, imposing itself always on the comparatively minor lives of these women and men. Time, too, imposes itself, adding not only rhythm but structure to these lives, and with structure, various forms of work, and with work, and with work, every conceivable excuse to do rather than to be. Even amid grief.
Hence the excitement of romance — especially where one least expects to find it. The World to Come’s intrigue isn’t so simple a matter as its choice to focus on the pioneer era’s women rather than on the heroic follies of its men, though this is obviously material. What stands out is the way that Fastvold’s film renders the furtive, the inexpressible, the typically-repressed in primary color. The ties grow between Abigail and Tallie feel unencumbered, afloat with a sense of joyous implausibility. No wonder their husbands grow jealous.
The World to Come was written by Ron Hansen (whose 1983 literary western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, was adapted into an Affleck film of the same name) and Jim Shepard, who wrote the short story, “The World to Come,” that inspired this adaptation. It may not sound like it so far, but The World to Come is, among other things, an immensely literary movie, told practically in the first person. It is anchored in the voice and presence of Abigail, who keeps a journal, the most delectable snippets of which are threaded through the movie, by way of a voiceover by Waterston, like a wind-dusted clothesline from which every scene hangs dripping.
I’ve seen the film likened, for almost all of the above reasons, to romance novel “forbidden love” fare, and you know what, so be it. Abigail’s journal is a particularly insightful device in this regard, playing into that notion while eroding it with additional meaning. Its flights and delights, as handsomely expressed by Waterston, are practically their own story. Her descriptions give both actor’s performances something to live up to. Waterston, with impeccable naturalness, gives us an Abigail whose intelligence is undeniable, whose sense of distance from her husband is practically tactile, yet whose inner life is sumptuous, furious with change, curiosity, feeling. Waterston’s performance makes the inner life spill outward, practically into Tallie’s lap — and Kirby somehow not only lives up to the woman Abigail writes so swooningly about (“Astonishment and joy! Astonishment and joy!”), but further renders Tallie into a complicated case in her own right: put-upon by a controlling husband, seemingly on the verge of cracking, hungry for some other avenue of attention and understanding. Yet remarkable, in her way, for her discretion.
“Tallie kept custody over her eyes,” Abigail writes, at one point, and Kirby lends substance to the self-control implied in that word custody. The action of the film announces Abigail to us as a wife and, for a short while, as a mother. But her journals tell us that she’s a writer; Tallie notices this, too. Dyer, for what its worth, is a writer, too. He keeps a ledger of everything worth keeping track of. I’ll leave you to guess whether this includes Abigail. Much — but thanks to Affleck and smart writing, not all — about the man, and the differences between him and his wife, can be summed up in that detail.
Whereas Finney proves a more troubled case — in part because of Abbott’s performance. It’s a role that was originally filled by the great Jesse Plemons, who might have proven more convincing than Abbott, more naturally rough and overbearingly watchful with that grim brow of his. Abbott — a strong, sensitive actor, great on Girls, and even better in Jerrod Carmichael’s upcoming On the Count of Three — lacks the banal, domesticated twinge of evil, the unaffected prowl of a natural bully that the role seems to call for. This matters because of what it clarifies about Tallie’s home life, the pressures she suffers under. Plainclothes fearsomeness, the kind that might make you hesitate to go home to the man without necessarily knowing why you’re avoiding him so — the kind whose mere presence might render a home into a prison — does not come to Abbott without a bit of effort. Yet even this proves to be less of an outright flaw, in the movie, than an opportune new angle on the character, an inadequacy doubled in Finney’s own inadequacy — to be precisely that kind of man. If The World to Come doesn’t entirely adapt Finney’s character to Abbott’s specific qualities as an actor, it’s spacious enough in its ideas to avail these multiple possibilities, filling Finney out as a character without even needing to overly dwell on the man.
Because, of course, neither Finney, nor even Dyer (who gets more screen time and is ultimately the more sympathetic of the two) are the focus here — even as their respective marriages, their distinct attitudes as husbands, are among the story’s essential ingredients. The focus is inarguably on Tallie and Abigail. And on the near-surreality of their romance, which exists so near-but-far, so dangerously close to the line separating their lives as wives from their relationship that would almost come off as pure fantasy — but for the fact of it happening so naturally. And Fastvold’s deftness with pace — the way that the drumbeat notation of the dates, in each of Abigail’s journal entries, is used to not only mark the passage of time in the story, but also to mark time, like a metronome, as the film flits from scene to scene — only heightens the swept-away tension of it all, speeding up or slowing down in concert with Abigail’s emotions.
There’s something about the way that The World to Come’s setting, its rootedness in time and place and its attention to all the baggage that this carries — for women in love, for wives — is gently negated by a romance that simply … happens. Not without danger or consequences. But also, notably, without doubt or the blatant melodrama of inner turmoil. Those approaches work for other movies, but they are almost beside the point, here. Maybe, being so tied to Abigail’s mind as we are, that inner turmoil is downplayed in line with Abigail’s own recording of events; maybe they’re downplayed because, paging through her own life, Abigail prefers to omit them. Maybe the flashes of outright sex that we see are recordings of Abigail’s fantasies, not the events as they happened; maybe a pit-pattering display of memories we see late in the film is a testament to that fact.
I don’t buy all of these “maybes.” But delving into them, having one’s curiosities about Abigail and Tallie stoked as you watch the movie, is one of The World to Come’s keenest pleasures. And Fastvold plays into them wonderfully, with a camera that — to name only one example — laps up the image of Kirby’s striking red hair, a mark of Tallie’s vanity (according to her), as if our eyes were Abigail’s astonished eyes. And if that’s the intention, there’s no way that Tallie can have missed Abigail’s practically drop-jawed staring. So to brandish that hair as she does — you can always rely on Kirby to be utterly magnetic — is its own divinely coded act, a come-on in pioneer woman’s clothing.
You can read the movie’s title, on its face, as a gesture toward a future still out of reach for these and other women. You can also read it as an incursion of that future into Tallie and Abigail’s present. The world to come: here it is. I prefer the second reading for the way it folds history in on itself — much like the movie, in which these women seem to act on their feelings for each other in a way that feels plucked out of our own present and dropped, without pretense, into the 19th Century. But, then, that gives the present too much credit and the past too little, which is the mistake that this movie deliberately does not make. To even be as horny for Tallie as Abigail is, lending literal voice to that lust in her journals, is substantial. Fastvold’s film presents us — not unlike Portrait of a Lady on Fire just before it, and Carol just before that, and other films before all of them — with a lens on historical desire between women that is disarming for its lack of hesitation. Carol memorably features a husband who knows the address of his wife’s ex-girlfriend — or one of them, anyway. Meaning: he knows his wife. Just as the men in The World to Come seem, at certain, essential moments, to know their wives — which is not to say that they understand them, nor to imply that they admit these things to themselves either way.
The operative word in “open secret” is open. Which is what Fastvold’s movie manages to be, in so many ways. Even the ties between women that it draws are subtly rendered in broader terms than its pivotal romance. A late scene of Abigail’s anguish over the death of another woman — a scene depicting a fire — adds a shock of meaning to the interactions that came before it, lest we take them for granted. Stealing away from their housework in the way that Tallie and Abigail do, communing away from their husbands as they do, should indeed not be taken for granted. The assaults on romantic possibility that arise in The World to Come are assaults on the very idea of these women being friends. Whereas their husbands seem to have no friends. These women have inner lives separate from those of their husbands. As in those aforementioned recent films, come from without, not within. From marriage as a construct and child-rearing as an obligation, from girl-talk that’s fashioned into an extravagance, a negligent distraction from labor, rather than from the women’s own lack of self-knowledge.
If the love between Tallie and Abigail feels implausible to some viewers, even fantastical for having so little hesitancy attached, that may be the point. Abigail sees Tallie for the first time and stares — practically cruises her — with her husband right there, unaware. Without Tallie, Abigail grows sick. “My heart a maelstrom; my head a bedlam,” she at one point writes. That’s love. The World to Come is an invitation to step into that maelstrom. It is an occasion to lay alongside these lovers, living within it.