Abigail is living the smallest of lives as a farmer’s wife in the rough-country upstate New York of 1856, wrapped in a shell of grief since the death of her young daughter the year before, resigned to an endless march of days where she will milk the cows and peel potatoes and stoke the fire before her husband joins her at the table for a simple meal and little if any conversation before it’s time for bed and the countdown of the hours until she’ll do it all over again.
Then one day a couple moves into the farm just down the road, and the shy and reserved Abigail is paid a visit by Tallie, who has stunning locks of long red hair and a twinkle of mischief in her eye, and Abigail has found a friend — a friend whose daily visits become a bright beam of sunshine in an otherwise terribly overcast existence, a friend who becomes something more than a friend, simultaneously unlocking Abigail’s heart and creating enormous risk.
If Mona Fastvold’s “The World to Come” sounds like the stuff of a short story by a literary talent of note, that’s because it was indeed a short story by the gifted Jim Shepard, who co-wrote the screen adaptation of his bleak, deliberately paced but deeply moving prose poem, with Katherine Waterston’s Abigail often taking pen to paper and serving as the voice-over narrator for the story. Abigail’s rough-hewn husband Dyer (an excellent Casey Affleck) surely loves his wife and would like to try to have children again, but he’s a taciturn man with a heavy weight hanging over him. (He’s severely depressed, though that’s not a term or a concept familiar to the era.) Even when Dyer tells Abigail he wouldn’t know how to go on without her, it’s more about Dyer than Abigail.
It hardly seems possible, but the newly arrived Finney (Christopher Abbott) is even less polished in social situations and less openly affectionate to his wife Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) than Dyer is with Abigail. There’s a surliness and a meanness to Finney that hints of righteous violence. Little wonder Tallie and Abigail find such joy and solace in each other’s company, sharing bits of gossip and confiding in one another, growing closer and closer emotionally and eventually physically.
Dyer and Finney are not educated nor are they sophisticated men, but they begin to resent their wives’ friendship and eventually to suspect it could be a romance. Even in the lighter, sunnier moments in “The World to Come” (with the changes of season serving as obvious metaphors), there’s a sense of foreboding lurking around the corner. This is not a time and place in American history where two women could end their respective marriages and live out their lives together without repercussions. (Hell, that wasn’t the case a hundred years later.)
With Romania standing in for 1850s New York State, “The World to Come” feels true to its time and place, and all four main players do a spectacularly good job of sounding and acting true to the time. Affleck and Abbott are solid in thankless, decidedly un-flashy roles, while Waterston and Kirby are beautiful together. However fraught with peril their love might be, Abigail and Tallie deserve every second of bliss they find in each other.