By Leah Greenblatt
February 12, 2021 at 07:35 PM EST
Credit: Vlad Cioplea/Bleecker Street Media

Flickering candlelight, brushed fingertips, a longing gaze... such are the petticoat ways of the historical lesbian romance. Mona Fastvold's feverish frontier drama The World to Come, out today, becomes the latest entry in that burgeoning genre — a love story of deep and delicate feeling if not strict originality (see also Ammonite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire).

A homesteader in the hardscrabble wilds of the mid-19th century, Abigail (Katherine Waterston) is also a woman in mourning, looking forward with "little pride and less hope," as she writes bleakly in the journal she's meant to be using as a household ledger. She and Dyer (Casey Affleck, taciturn to a fault but not unkind) have lost a child, their days together now a grim gray procession of endless chores and silent meals.    

Enter Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), a new neighbor whose arrival jolts Abigail to life. Suddenly she has a friend — someone to spend hours with at the kitchen table or on long walks in the woods and more importantly, an outlet and distraction from her grief. Tallie's frank openness seems to come from a brighter, bolder place, though it clearly doesn't please her domineering husband, Finney (that's Girls and Catch 22 star Christopher Abbott beneath the biblical pronouncements and inky beard). Still for a while they fall into an uneasy foursome, exchanging social calls and politely stifled courtesies.

And when the tension between Abigail and Tallie begins to spill over into something more explicit, it doesn't escape Finney, even if he's not sure exactly what he knows. The script, by novelist Ron Hansen (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) from a short story by Jim Shepard, feels almost like a Western in its spareness, though a ponderous voiceover by Waterston too often leaves a heavy footprint — as do the oddly syntaxed sentences the characters tend to speak in, less intimate than oratory.

That mannered tone can sometimes make World feel less like a full-fledged narrative than a gorgeously curated mood, a heady arthouse exercise in style. But the immersive look of the film, with its strikingly unadorned landscapes and dim-lit interiors, casts a spell, and Waterston (the Fantastic Beasts franchise) and Kirby (The Crown, Pieces of Woman), bring both urgency and fragility to their constrained characters — two lost souls aligned and finding love in a hopeless place. Grade: B

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