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VOD Review: The World to Come

March 3, 2021

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

The World to Come, the latest in a string of period piece lesbian romances, is a film that suffers in comparison to Ammonite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. But even if it hadn’t been released in such close proximity to those better, thematically similar films, this painfully slow-moving forbidden love story from director Mona Fastvold still would have been a relative bore.

The story is set in 1856 on the American East Coast. The main character is Abigail (Katherine Waterston), who narrates the film through diary entries. She lives on a farm with her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck), and the two of them are still mourning the death of their young daughter from diphtheria.

The woman that Abigail falls in love with is named Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), who is renting a nearby farm with her emotionally abusive husband Finney (Christopher Abbott). Abigail and Tallie start spending more and more time together, eventually becoming lovers, leading Abigail’s husband to become more distant as Tallie’s husband becomes increasingly possessive of his wife.

With its breathy voiceover narration and lingering shots, The World to Come aspires to be a Terrence Malick film, but it feels like a poor copy of his work. The film is based on a short story by Jim Shepard, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Ron Hansen, and the drama feels stretched thin at a glacially paced 105 minutes. It’s not the slow pace that bothered me, mind you, but rather how it’s paced, and the lack of general interest that I had in these thinly written, two-dimensional characters.

Waterston and Kirby do fine work with what they are given, and their mostly understated performances are probably the best part of The World to Come. But even they struggle to breathe genuine life into this mostly listless film, and the chemistry between them lacks the necessary spark to hook us in. For his part, Affleck is a predictably solid presence, and is given perhaps the most interesting character arc of a husband slowly coming to the realization that his wife is in love with another woman, but choosing to leave it mostly unsaid. Meanwhile, Abbott delivers all of his lines in a very measured way, an acting choice that I found distracting and didn’t really work for me.

The film ends up feeling like little more than a mid-19th century soap opera. The dialogue is often mundane in its attempts to capture the day-to-day conversations of the time period, and certain lines sound like self-parody. The production values are also hit and miss, including some daytime scenes that light and frame the actors in a way that makes it look like they are in a dated TV movie.

Watching The World to Come just made me appreciate the quiet but compelling pace of a frontier drama like Kelly Reichardt’s recent First Cow even more. There is no real passion or chemistry that leaps off the screen here, and the predictable dramatic story plays out in a way that feels like air being slowly let out of a balloon. It’s all kept very mannered and stilted, to an absolute fault, and I truthfully found it kind of a slog to get through.

The World to Come is now available to watch on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by levelFILM.

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