Review by Sarah Williams
Love letters are the most common surviving relic of relationships between women of the past. Diaries and notes are pieces together, getting a half idea if love affairs that, while not outwardly forbidden, went unnoticed in a male-driven society. These female friendships were often tinged with a burning passion, commitment beyond that to a husband. The World To Come is a chain of such love letters and diary entries, threaded into a delicate love tragedy, that though flawed, is so believably rendered, with a pleading, beating heart of chemistry.
Abigail (Katherine Waterston) has recently lost her daughter from diptheria in late 19th century Upstate New York. A winding diary entry monologue details her detachment from her husband and child, and how she feels that she has become her grief. Redhead whirlwind Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) falls into her life one day, met at the edge of their property, and the two women begin to meet often, and grow close, coming alive with the company. It's a romance film, but it's more about the awakening than anything. We see Abigail roll over in the night and express her newly articulated discomfort for physical intimacy with her husband before we ever see her and Tallie do the same.
This, in large part, is a film about ecstasy, and finding something holy in love. Tallie's visits come weekly, and they're a light in Abigail's life that leaves her breathless and excited each time, even when it's something as simple as plucking chickens together. That religious ecstasy climaxes when Tallie's visit ends in a gently burning kiss. Abigail seats herself on a bench when she shuts the door behind her, and lays back against the table. Her arms outstretch, her neck cranes back, and dark hair and billowy dark sleeves and skirting pool around her. She looks to be sacrificed to some power above, spare for a sigh of pleasure that comes with having known joy in love that day.
For Abigail and Tallie, finding pleasure becomes like heaven. The two women find a certain freedom in their escapes together, laying in a small clearing in the forest for gentle affection. Small rays of sunlight find them here, and they are able to strip down a bit and blend in with nature in their joy. Abigail saves her money to buy an atlas, as she dreams of far off places, and longs for that tactile feeling of pages beneath her fingertips. For her, in those coming months, Tallie will become her world, and she'll be that atlas of pages of memories she can take to love on with her. Abigail once says "And you know what memory it is that I most cherish? It's of your turning to me, with that smile you gave me, once you realized that you were loved", and it really sums up the power she finds in having this brief love, and in being able to make someone else feel that same joy she does. Cliche, but it's the power of a good love story.
The film is far from without its issues, and they may overwhelm it for others. While many praised the score as innovative and beautiful, a fellow disappointment media critic referred to the sound as "like someone had deep-throated an oboe" after the Sundance screening. This is a minor and subjective issue, however, compared to the film's messy messaging when it comes to the finale. A turn for tragedy breaks the rhythm of the film, and feels unnecessarily cruel (not to mention the misplaced sex scene) when this plot point is there for a message that love can be what awakens you, and that the memory is important. There are so many less jarring ways to do this, that don't feel like a tonal pitfall, and changing the original short story ending feels warranted here. Abigail's diary entries sometimes feel like a copout to avoid showing the intricacies of dialogue, though they're usually wonderful. Also, this is a movie starring Casey Affleck. Do what you will with that.
The World To Come has its missteps, but the fantastic chemistry of those first two acts make it emotionally devastating enough some of its issues can be forgiven. It's bluntly realistic enough about each of the two women's situations, whether they be grief or an unhealthy relationship. This frankness makes the moments we don't see easier to fill in, easier to see what level of passion Abigail and Tallie have between the scenes. With splendid craft all around, it's an ideal Valentine's Day alone and cry movie.
The World to Come hits theaters February 12 and VOD on March 2.