“The World to Come,” the film adaptation of Jim Shepard‘s 2017 short story of the same name, is just as sophisticated and lovely as the author’s elegant prose. Shepard also co-authored the screenplay (with Ron Hansen), and his eloquent writing makes for a lovely film about two women longing for intimacy in the 1800s.
In upstate New York, Abigail (Katherine Waterston) is devastated by grief when her only child dies at the age of four. She does what she can to take care of the home and her farmer husband, Dyer (Casey Affleck). Between the cooking, cleaning, and milking cows, Abigail quietly pens diaries of her feelings, narrating the story from her point of view by reading from her ledgers.
A little excitement comes into the woman’s life when newcomers Finney (Christopher Abbott) and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) move to town. The two women instantly hit it off and soon learn that they share a much deeper connection than a simple friendship. Their desire leads to a secret affair, causing everyone’s way of life to crumble.
There isn’t much to the story, but director Mona Fastvold‘s thoughtful, beautiful storytelling brings Shepard’s descriptive writing to life. There’s a simmering feminist undercurrent here too, as the film explores the harsh realities that women faced during this period in American History. It was a time when a woman’s self-worth was tied to her becoming a mother, and she was made to feel less than adequate if she could not or would not produce a child. It was a time when women were expected to perform certain duties, controlled by a domineering man or religion. Tallie and Abigail have two very different husbands, one is kind and the other cruel, and their love story is one exhilaration and sadness. Each are imprisoned in a life they can’t escape.
The film features stellar performances from the entire cast, including some of the best career work yet from Kirby and Waterston. Affleck is reliable as a kind man who is full of empathy, while Abbott gives Finney just the right amount of reprehensible. The acting here is just as phenomenal as the writing, and when paired with Fastvold’s choreographed direction, makes “The World to Come” a stunning period drama.