In Bleak Drama ‘The World to Come,’ Two Frontier Women Find Comfort in Each Other

Upstate New York in the 1850s is the setting for a passionate lesbian affair in romantic period drama “The World to Come.” Katherine Waterston stars as Abigail, a frontier woman who is still grieving the death of her little girl from diphtheria when a new neighbor, Tally (Vanessa Kirby), brings some much needed light into her otherwise dark world. 

The film begins with a freezing winter, a not so subtle metaphor for what’s going on inside of Abigail, and one hopes things can only get better from there. The title “The World to Come” comes from Abigail’s euphemism for the afterlife, as she once found comfort in the idea of Heaven. Now, she doesn’t even go to church, which makes her an outsider in her rural community. As an educated woman, she doesn’t find satisfaction in the everyday responsibilities of a farm wife, much to the annoyance of her husband, Dyer (Casey Affleck). Instead, she finds solace in her diary, and her entries are read to the viewer in her voice over. She hopes to buy an atlas as a gift to herself, and the fact that she takes such pleasure in the idea of owning a simple book makes the modern viewer realize how much they take modern conveniences like the internet for granted.

It is on an ordinary Sunday that Abigail first sees Tally, and from the first glance there is this electrifying spark between the two. Like Abigail, Tally is childless, and she and her husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) rent a nearby farm. The two couples dine together, and the women quickly grow close, with Tally paying Abigail afternoon visits that become the highlight of their long days, as they connect deeply both intellectually and emotionally. They share their innermost thoughts with each other, and their emotional intimacy soon progresses into a passionate physical relationship. It’s a welcome thaw after a long, cold winter, both literally and figuratively.

Dyer has something of sensitive side, and while he doesn’t love the fact that his wife prefers the company of her gal pal over his, deep down he seems to genuinely care about her happiness, and he proves this when he drives several miles to take Abigail to see Tally after Finney forces her to flee further north. Finney, it turns out, is abusive to his wife, both emotionally and physically, and is a hardened brute even by the standards of the time, and he uses the Bible as a weapon to keep his wife in her place.

Predictably, “The World to Come” ends on a less than uplifting note. It’s not the easiest watch, as it suffers from slow pacing and unwieldy period dialogue. However, the performances are outstanding and Waterston and Kirby have great chemistry. What the film does best is show how it is possible to find happiness during even the dreariest of times. One just has to be open and willing to grab it from wherever.

The World to Come” releases Feb. 12 in select cities and March 2 on VOD.