Like a London bus, we’ve been waiting to see Vanessa Kirby star in a major film role and here she is in Venice appearing in two. First off was her impressive portrayal of a grieving mother piecing her life back together in Pieces of a Woman, quickly followed by an equally impressive star turn in The World to Come.
Directed by the Norwegian filmmaker Mona Fastvold, the story begins on the 1st of January 1856. The setting is an upstate New York farmstead. The first thing that strikes you watching the opening scenes is how lovely the film is to look at. A little too lovely, frankly. The palette is all Farrow & Ball blues mingled with bleached wood, the home immaculate and tasteful, the house like a fancy ski lodge. You wish you lived there, and it is only thanks to the scenes of the farm’s two inhabitants going about their slaughtering, milking, shepherding, cooking and woodchopping that reminds you of how tough life was back then.
The farm is home to Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Dyer (Casey Affleck), an incredibly sympathetic couple who are trying to come to terms with the death of their beloved only daughter, which has created a rift between them. While the film opens on the new year and a bitterly cold winter, the past when their daughter was well is imbued with sunlight. Their grief is muted and constant. Both leads give moving performances and Affleck is particularly affecting as the pragmatic husband very obviously in love with his wife, who has become as unyielding as the winter weather. Dyer focuses on his inventions and farm work while Abigail tries to educate herself, requesting the purchase of an atlas.
Into this beautiful but occasionally brutal landscape come new neighbours: tenant farmer Finney (Christopher Abbott) and his beautiful wife Tallie (Vanessa Kirby). Her flame hair and sensuality reminded me of Alex Kingston’s Moll Flanders. She is clearly too good for her husband, being more articulate and educated, whereas he just wants her home and pregnant. Tallie immediately befriends Abigail, becoming a frequent visitor to the latter’s home. It seems pretty implausible that a nineteenth-century farmwife would have so much free time, spending hours visiting Abigail, who is constantly at work. For Abigail’s birthday, Dyer gets her a can of fish and a packet of raisins, while Tallie shows up with an atlas of the US. It’s like Tallie really gets Abigail, you know?
The women realise that theirs is more than a friendship and they soon become lovers. That idyllic farmstead becomes increasingly like a prison to Abigail, who writes of her feelings in her journal. The constant voiceover as Abigail reads her diary entries begins to grate, particularly as it is accompanied by moody music. However, this does make the story very much Abigail’s. She and Tallie discuss a woman’s lot in society, in which they are brides before they are women, their worth measured in the children they produce, and who are completely at the mercy of their husbands. Finney obsessively keeps track of his wife’s movements, but even the kind-hearted Dyer notes the expenditure of his wife in his ledger. And one question looms: in a marriage that is falling apart, with Dyer noticing the increasing distance in his wife, why would he not read her diary?
There is much to love about this film, with strong performances from the four leads, particularly Waterston and Affleck.The aforementioned gorgeousness of just about everything makes it eminently watchable, but is also one of its flaws. Yet, like Celine Sciamma’s far superior Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it’s great to see female directors telling women’s stories so intelligently and beautifully.