Astonishment and joy.
As narrated through words written in Abigail’s (Katherine Waterston) ledger, Mona Fastvold‘s The World to Come ultimately proves less a romance than a survival film thanks to its 1856 frontier New York setting. More than simply an aesthetic choice on behalf of writers Jim Shepard (upon whose story it’s based) and Ron Hansen, its era of hardship, tragedy, and oppression becomes a character unto itself. As with all eras (our own included), however, those hardships, tragedies, and invisibly oppressive prisons of circumstance are much more dire where they concern woman. Like Abigail’s mother used to say: everything a woman must do, whether duties in the fields or at home, is all but forgotten in the minds of men since nothing can ever compensate for their cost.
That’s not to say Dyer (Casey Affleck) is a bad husband. For the time and poverty level, he may very well be considered good. But everything is relative when one’s relationship is built on financial security and necessity. Abigail is still barely more than a piece of property as far as her duties entail. As Waterston relates from her memory of reading the script for the first time, her character is described as an “asset.” She’s to give Dyer a child. She’s to cook meals, milk their cows, and perform whatever other chores and labor have been placed upon her shoulders. And when their daughter passes like so many others, Abigail is asked to internalize her emotions and carry on. If not for Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) she might.
Why? Because there would have been nothing else to distract from the monotonous, threadbare life Abigail’s marriage delivered. She would have simply continued writing in that ledger about everything her shyness and station refused to let her say aloud. What was unavoidably rote suddenly became bearable, though, the moment Tallie visits from the adjacent property she and her husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) are renting. Here was someone with which she could spend time and dare flirt with candor when the moment struck. Here was a woman who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind in mixed company—an inspiration burning bright enough to cut through the darkness that had otherwise consumed Abigail from the inside out. Tallie becomes a reason to smile again. To hope. To live beyond obligation.
And we feel this truth through the environment. It’s precisely that Fastvold crafts a beautifully rendered period piece that the characters can perform the script as a beautifully dense study of their humanity (and, unfortunately, a lack thereof). Because along with Abigail allowing herself to be vulnerable with Tallie comes a front row seat to how their obvious connection is being absorbed by the men who are in turn scorned both emotionally and practically as their husbands (owners and employers). Much like Abigail’s subdued nature, Dyer follows suit. Rather than get angry at what he knows is happening, he retreats from conflict and resigns himself to the reality that he could never prove his love for her by refusing her the happiness he’s never been able to give.
Finney by contrast is similar to Tallie—impulsive and confrontational. Whereas those traits are how she fends off his more misogynistic tendencies to show Abigail a sense of unimaginable freedom, they in turn embolden him to tighten his grip and force her into lockstep. So while we watch a sort of reversal in the familial dynamic between Abigail and Dyer with her wants and desires trumping his, Finney all but suffocates his wife. And rather than give us the fireworks of what may or may not be happening behind their closed doors, we experience this shift solely from Abigail’s worry and Dyer’s growing disgust. All we have to do is compare the couples’ two dinners together to witness it via body language and stolen glances devoid of words.
That’s where the film’s true power ultimately lies: an expressive silence that alternates between exhilaratingly electric with potential and anxiety-inducingly tense with uncertainty. There’s a scene where Abigail is kneading dough as someone approaches the house. A smile brims from ear to ear as she reaches the door, falling away the moment she sees the figure is her husband and not Tallie. So much is said with that look—enough that Dyer can’t help but call attention to both it and the smile’s return a couple minutes later when their neighbor does find herself on their porch after all. This love that these women share is thus far greater than lust or attraction. In each other they recognize an escape from trapped lives they were powerless to reject.
The men of course see that reality as a threat to their control and suddenly we realize (if you didn’t already) just how oppressive this life is regardless of appearances. Because even when love is present (Dyer cares very deeply for Abigail despite those feelings being born from gender norms and patriarchal tradition), we can’t help but know its attempt at finding joy has grown hollow. And where love is but a construct the man wields as a gift that can be stolen away as punishment, we understand how even the smallest example of independent thinking on behalf of one’s wife proves a fleeting mirage. Idle threats are thus anything but idle. They’re very real warnings both for those they target and those purposefully invited closer to hear.
Don’t therefore believe the filmmakers’ goal is to regale you with romance. This is a world where romance can’t exist—especially not amongst the poor. We’re instead given the melancholic ruminations of a prisoner to society’s failings. Fastvold and company provide us the complexity inherent in knowing one’s restrictions and being helpless to break free. We see it in small glimpses amongst strange men proving predatory natures or absolute indifference and domestically amongst husbands bred to treat love as conditional (even when it’s more). This is Abigail’s story of discontent and rebirth within a life that can’t even guarantee a few minutes of respite each day. And Waterston has never been better with every second becoming two separate performances at once: what she shows and what she feels.
 Katherine Waterston (L) stars as Abigail and Vanessa Kirby (R) stars as Tallie in Mona Fastvold’s THE WORLD TO COME, a Bleecker Street release Credit: Vlad Cioplea
 Katherine Waterston (L) stars as Abigail and Casey Affleck (R) stars as Dyer in Mona Fastvold’s THE WORLD TO COME, a Bleecker Street release Credit: Vlad Cioplea
 Christopher Abbott (L) stars as Finney and Vanessa Kirby (R) stars as Tallie in Mona Fastvold’s THE WORLD TO COME, a Bleecker Street release Credit: Vlad Cioplea