Sundance Review: “The World To Come”

Year: 2021

Runtime: 98 minutes

Director: Mona Fastvold

Writer: Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard

Stars: Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, Casey Affleck, Christopher Abbott

By Morgan Roberts

“Tuesday, January 1st, 1856.” Our film begins at the start of a new year. Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck) bleakly begin the year ahead. It is Upstate New York, rural and farming. After a tragic loss, it appears that the motions are all that Abigail and Dyer will follow. That is until Finney (Christopher Abbott) and his wife Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) arrive. What starts as a budding friendship of two women desperate for companionship and understanding, blossoms into something much deeper.

With “The World to Come” (2021) filmmaker Mona Fastvold crafts a slow-burning tale of love, possibility, and loss. Period piece love stories between two women are not a new story. 2018 saw both “Colette” and “The Favourite.” Shortly thereafter, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019) followed. So, what sets “The World to Come” apart? Similarly to “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” the film was directed by a woman. From the first frame, you do not feel the same male gaze one normally senses in a film. Take “Disobedience” (2017) for example. While Rachel Weisz had a thing or two to say about the film, and helped craft it into a finer piece, there is still something about it that felt looked in on rather than living within. “The World to Come” has you feel part of the story. 

The real strength of this film lies within the performances by Waterston and Kirby. Together, the pair are dynamic and have an instant, electric connection.

The film is from Abigail’s perspective. We get to understand her inner workings and feelings through voiceover as she writes into her diary. The audience exists within Abigail’s viewpoint. Being from a female director and having the story told from a female protagonist carries the film into refreshing territory. It is Abigail’s narrative the gives the film ground to stand on. At one point, Abigail laments, “But my life has surprised me by being far more ordinary.” It is her humanness which draws us in. The strive for purpose in the world and for it to have great meaning. And when we are not finding great meaning, does that devalue our worth?

The real strength of this film lies within the performances by Waterston and Kirby. Together, the pair are dynamic and have an instant, electric connection. You can believe their friendship. Waterston allows Abigail to open up, awkwardly at first. It is in her honesty that you find a woman so ahead of her time. I found that Waterston allowed Abigail to be a quiet yet commanding presence. There are some choices she makes in a kitchen scene and in a few scenes at the end that are extremely nuanced. I know this is vague, but I really don’t want to ruin the ending. 

Kirby, meanwhile, oozes charm that makes it easy for anyone to become drawn into her. You can understand why Abigail is instantly infatuated with Tallie. She captivates from the moment she is on screen. Kirby has such a gift of being authentic and in the moment. Her performance feels extremely organic and as Tallie’s journey unfolds, the charm becomes just a layer of a deeply complex and headstrong woman.

Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby appear in The World to Come by Mona Fastvold, an official selection of the Spotlight section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Vlad Cioplea. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’ Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“The World to Come” is, at essence, a character story which evolves into a love story. The cinematography is beautiful and captures the rugged splendor of the place (and people). Many of the elements of the film work so splendidly together. If only for a few pacing issues and the slightly distracting score, the film would be pitch perfect. What grounds the work are the performances by Waterston and Kirby along with the shifted perspective that give this film depth and empathy for women. And that is what make “The World to Come” a worthwhile watch.

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