I’m not saying absolutely nothing happens in The World to Come, a pioneer days romance starring four of the most appealing actors in film today. After all, the story of two pre-Civil War Massachusetts farm wives who escape bad marriages by finding love in each other’s arms has got to have some plot development, right?
And yet, even though director Mona Fastvold’s film runs barely more than an hour-and-a-half, The World To Come evolves rather than progresses, and by that I mean the film seems to last roughly as long as it took invertebrate sea creatures to evolve into bipedal hominids.
Abigail (fresh-faced Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them costar Katherine Waterston) is the model 19th century farm wife: She milks the cows, sweeps the floor, tries to revive chickens that froze to death overnight, etc. But in the eyes of her distracted hubby (Oscar winner Casey Affleck) she is woefully lacking in the conjugal duties department, having been traumatized by the diphtheria death of their daughter a few months earlier.
Exotic, flame-haired Tallie (Vanessa Kirby, who played Princess Margaret on The Crown) seems about at home on the farm as Paris Hilton did on The Simple Life. Like Abigail, she resists any and all romantic advances from her perpetually grim husband (Catch-22 star Christopher Abbott), but unlike Abigail, she lacks any excuse other than general disinterest.
Of course, we know from the start what neither clueless husband realizes: Abigail and Tallie have fallen for each other harder than a pair of WWF fighters tumbling over the ropes. It’s obvious from their first encounter, when Tallie, having just arrived in these parts, rides by Abigail’s place in a wagon and locks eyes with her — this from a distance of what must be 100 yards or more. The two become friends and — after what seems like a century of fleeting finger touches, longing stares and strands of hair brushed from batting eyes — secret lovers.
It’s a secret that I imagine would be hard to keep in the 19th century Berkshires. Time and again the women throw on their wraps and announce to their bemused husbands they are “going out,” as if they suddenly need something down at CVS. Then it’s off for a tryst in the forest or a quick encounter at one of their homes while hubby is out doing whatever it is movie farmers do (hammering things seems to be the prime activity here).
From a performance standpoint, the cast is undeniably all-in, and director Fastvold’s patient approach allows each actor room to breathe during long passages when The World to Come borders on becoming a silent film (Waterston’s narration, whispered and devoid of emotion, sounds like someone talking in her sleep).
So, commitment to the material isn’t the problem; the trouble is the material. Screenwriters Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard have created an intriguing situation without attaching a story to it. And when they finally introduce an actual plot twist, about 80 minutes in, we’re distressingly relieved by the tragic development, just happy to have something to hold onto.
We seem to be in an era of Women in Forbidden Love movies. Many of them — Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Favourite, and Ammonite, in particular — succeed by placing their conflicted characters in the context of societies structured in opposition to their natures. Living in the relative vacuum of a distant wilderness, the women in The World to Come do face peril from their boorish husbands, but it’s a slow burn of resistance, and until the end the stakes never seem very high.
Of course, this is all from a man’s point of view. And, yes, a car chase might have helped.
Featured image: Scene from The World to Come (photo by Vlad Cioplea)
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now