A secluded homestead pitched amid icy woods is aptly the first image we see in “The World to Come,” Mona Fastvold’s 19th century frontier romance that sparks between two lonely women. With an unvaryingly soft voiceover, Abigail (Katherine Waterston) serves as the narrator of the tale through poetic words she puts down in her diary. “Ice in our bedroom this morning for the first time all winter,” she says on January 1st, as if to unsubtly emphasize the chill she feels towards her husband inside their bed sheets that the cold winter can’t entirely be blamed for. “With little pride and less hope and only occasional and uncertain intervals of happiness, we begin the new year,” she continues.
Yes, Abigail is forlorn and the exceedingly melancholic, often sleepy “The World to Come” won’t let you forget it even for a moment; even when this delicate woman with a broken spirit finally (albeit briefly) finds love and companionship in secret. It isn’t that pensiveness is necessarily the wrong note for a story of doomed love that blossoms in an intolerant and patriarchal era and society. But Fastvold’s feature, which unfolds across four seasons, hits on it so ceaselessly that one often craves the jolt of energy that a yarn centering on an against-the-odds romance should exude. What emerges between Abigail and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), a flame-haired new neighbor renting a nearby farm with her abusive husband, is a soulful affair you unambiguously root for. But the film’s strangely wooden timbre reigns over it to overpowering effect, making you wonder when its lead characters would at long last break out of it. Sadly, they rarely do, and co-writers Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard (adapting Shepard’s short story) don’t furnish their script with enough anticipation for the audience to nibble on.
Before meeting Tallie, Abigail’s life is defined by the hard farm work she bears alongside her wistful husband Dyer (Casey Affleck). The two are grieving after tragically losing their young daughter to illness. Everything feels dead-end in their lives, until Tallie and Finney (Christopher Abbott) arrive. We detect a visible and immediate connection between Abigail and Tallie’s blushing peaches-and-cream faces. We hope instantly that they’ll act on it and through their gradually swelling relationship, the pair doesn’t disappoint. Soon, brief but intimate afternoon hangouts by the fire grow into longer ones, leading to stolen embraces and kisses as well as time spent in the woods reading poetry to each other. Later, their acts take an even braver turn, despite the increasing suspicions of their husbands. And when Finney and Tallie heartbreakingly disappear one day, the adventurous and spirited Abigail hits the road to find her ill-fated lover, armed with nothing but an atlas.