Movie Review: “The World to Come”

It is perhaps too obvious a statement to say that the way in which a story unfolds is crucial. Still, obvious or not, it remains true. I am thinking here, specifically, of a tale’s point of view. Whether it offers an omniscient POV or that of individual characters determines how the audience understands things. Of course, tales can cheat these points of view along the way as well, and that, too, tells us something. Doing this last thing might feel like undercutting the entirety of the affair, and perhaps that, too, tells us something.

Heading from generalities to specifics, such is the case for director Mona Fastvold’s new movie, “The World to Come.” Written by Ron Hansen & Jim Shepard (based on the story by Shepard), we are offered the tale as written in one of the character’s diaries. Well, it’s really a ledger but it’s used to keep score of love rather than for its intended purpose.

The diary is kept by Abigail (Katherine Waterston), a farmer’s wife living in the late 1850s. Abigail is married to Dyer (Casey Affleck), a nice man, but maybe one who doesn’t set her heart ablaze. As we see unfold over the course of the film, Abigail’s heart responds far better to the affections of her new neighbor, Tallie (Vanessa Kirby). Tallie, in turn, is married to Finney (Christopher Abbott), who is nowhere near as decent a human being as Dyer.

All of this is presented to us via voiceover offering the diary entries from Waterston’s Abigail. Her tone throughout this voiceover is at best described as staid. That said, it works. It is purposeful and paints a portrait of a time and place and people.

There is, throughout, a sense of building in the movie. It is layered, piece by piece, so that we can see the way in which the relationship between Abigail and Tallie grows and changes. It is a choice that makes a whole lot of sense, and one that requires increased attention and participation on the part of the audience to succeed. Participation that the movie gets because the build is wonderful.

However, crucially and disappointingly, the movie cheats. The story and voiceover is from the diary except for the bits of Tallie’s life with Finney that don’t seem to be things written down, nor things told to Abigail. Then there’s also the moment when the movie, ever so briefly, offers up a series of letters traded between the two women before switching back to the diary. The abrupt changes pull the viewer right out of the climax of the film. Finally, we quickly learn that maybe we haven’t always been given the full truth of what’s in the diary (or, perhaps, Abigail’s hiding the truth from the diary and we are allowed to glimpse it ever so briefly).

The upshot of all of this confusion is not merely that the story itself becomes muddled, but also to the conclusion that the very method by which it unfolds seems to have been a bad selection. “The World to Come” ends up feeling as though it simply cannot offer the full scope of the via one person’s diary and therefore cheats rather than choosing a more suitable vehicle.

The disappointment is all the greater because in so many ways the movie succeeds. Abigail’s hesitancy to offer her thoughts and feelings in spoken word is beautifully offset by the looks she offers and the very way in which Waterston carries herself. The burgeoning relationship between Abigail and Tallie is grows so carefully and watching that affection that occur is powerful. It means something.

Affleck imbues Dyer with such humanity as well. The story is by no means his, but we get a great sense of this man who is willing to travel long distances so that his wife can see the woman he, seemingly, knows she loves more than she loves him. It is a testament of what we will do for those for whom we care, even if it, in some sense, helps them to move further away from us. Dyer is poorly treated in the film, but cares so much for Abigail that he lets it go and there’s something sad and beautiful in that.

The sets and costumes and views of the surrounding area offered up in “The World to Come” are no less great than the emotions the story attempts to convey. It is a beautiful movie to look at even if there’s disappointment in the manner in which it unfolds.

Yes, Fastvold’s movie has so much going for it and different people will find the narrative cheats disappointing to greater or lesser extents. For this reviewer, it was simply too much. Elements of the movie are outstanding, but simply could not overcome my frustration with the stortytelling.

photo credit: Bleecker Street

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