Another day, another lesbian period romance. At least that’s how it has felt for the last couple of years, but I’m not complaining! From Ammonite to Vita & Virginia to Portrait Of A Lady On Fire and beyond, this particular sub genre seems to be having quite a high profile renaissance of late, and for the most part, I have been impressed with the quality of the projects both in terms of story and star power. As a little treat before the onslaught of Oscar nomination mayhem this week, I decided to settle in for what promised to be another in this growing collection.
Set in 19th century upstate New York, The World To Come tells the story of Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), two isolated country farm housewives who, upon becoming new neighbours, strike an immediate connection and embark on a passionate affair. If you have seen any, and I mean any, queer period forbidden romance before, then you will know exactly what to expect from this. The film is pretty much a check list of plot points that epitomise the sub genre, but for reasons I’m still not quite sure of, The World To Come worked for me in a much more impressive way than it perhaps deserved to.
The general story arc of the film is an extremely familiar one to anybody with a vested interest in this kind of romance. We get an initial meeting, followed by bubbling chemistry, followed by a brief section of consummated happiness, quickly squashed by the reality of a same sex love affair in which ever era you happen to be watching. In this case, 1850s farmhouse New York is as evocative a setting as any. A rather refreshing change from the desolate nature of the Wild West, the scenery in The World To Come is equal parts beautiful and hostile. There is an abundance of greenery and nature, combined with forceful weather that almost feels like an antagonist in itself.
I’m rarely happy with the fatalistic endings of queer romance films, but the thing that really saves The World To Come is the all of the stuff that happens before the inevitable kicks in to remind you that lesbians can’t be happy in cinema. Maybe I’ve been in lockdown for too long at this point, but there was something about the romantic build up to this particular affair that really gripped me in a big way. The language in the dialog is very lyrical and ambitious throughout, almost dreamlike at times. Some might call it over the top or twee but I found it to be rather poetic. I.m a bloody sucker for cinematic lesbian melancholy. I half resent that I have been conditioned this way by the lengthy trail of misery filled queer narratives in film, but at the same time, there is always something about them that pulls me in. For that kind of vibe, The World To Come is an unexpected pleasure. Just be prepared for an ending that you don’t want, and in this case, a particularly over the top one at that.
This movie lives and dies on its chemistry, and from where I was sitting, said chemistry was poppin’. We begin the film with Katherine Waterston’s Abigail, a fairly timid women, downtrodden by the hard life she is living and still in mourning for her recently deceased young daughter. Providing the narrative voice for the story, Waterston is very enigmatic in a sort of quiet, restrained way. The addition of Vanessa Kirby as new charismatic neighbour Tallie really sets the tension into motion. With long locks of flowing, fiery red hair and a much more combative and assured attitude than Abigail, Tallie certainly shakes things up around the place, and together, I think the pair are absolute dynamite. Some might be put off by their very ‘scripty’, poetic dialogue, but I was fully in before I even realised it.
She has the benefit of being the character the sweeps in to shake up the status quo, but there is no denying that Vanessa Kirby owns this movie. You can’t take your eyes off her when she is on screen. All of her plaudits this season have been directed at her performance in Pieces Of A Woman, but honestly, I was more drawn to her and impressed by her in this (albeit more stagey) role.
The only two other significant characters in the story are the Abigail and Tallie’s husbands, played by Casey Affleck and Christopher Abbot respectively. As Dyer and Finney, Affleck and Abbot very much represent opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of 19th century husband figures, the former being rather placid and the latter controlling to the point of eventual danger. The film very much isn’t about the men in the equation, but it does a good job of displaying just how impossible life in the 1850s would have been for women who strayed anywhere out of the traditional boundaries that were set for them.
Overall, I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised by The World To Come. In terms of its themes and plot points, the film is very much a cut and paste of the forbidden lesbian romance sub genre, but there is just something about it that won me over very early on. The tension and chemistry in the first half of the film is enough to carry you through the rougher, inevitable second half, and sometimes with these kinds of stories, that is the best you can hope for because you know damn well it’s not going to be a happy ending. A small cast, working in small spaces, producing very big emotions. I can see myself returning to this one in time, and that isn’t something that I feel very often these days!