There were quite a few times that lesbian romances were highlighted in films recently (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Ammonite are some that come to mind). A commonality is that many are also period pieces.
Bleeker Street Media adds to the genre with The World To Come, a 19th-century romance starring Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby and directed by Mona Fastvold. Waterston plays Abigail, an austere, hardworking woman who is in mourning after the death of her daughter. Kirby’s character Tallie is quite the opposite. She is free-spirited and refuses to adhere to her husband’s expectations. She and her husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) are also not financially burdened like Abigail and her husband. Tallie visits Abigail regularly, and the two form an unbreakable bond outside of the pressures of their marriages and the traditional roles of women at the time. This relationship becomes passionate both physically and emotionally.
The World to Come has many familiar elements of a period piece with a female lead. The women in the film express unhappiness in the roles forced upon them, they find solace in other women, and through subtle acts of rebellion, they achieve moments of happiness free from societal expectation. While these elements along with the costuming, set dressing, and 19th-century dialogue are not too distinguishable from other period dramas, the male characters, specifically Casey Affleck’s Dyer, are unique.
Finney is the typical 19th-century husband to a disobedient wife. He demands that Tallie performs her duties as a wife, he devalues her for not yet giving him a child, and he reinforces his control over her when she acts out. Abigail’s husband Dyer is not as brash. Like Abigail, Dyer also mourns his daughter’s death and spends his days laboring over the farm. Admittedly, Abigail does not push Dyer as Tallie does Finney. Nonetheless, Dyer’s reactions to the changes in Abigail are still notable. When Abigail becomes obsessed with Tallie, Dyer is at most passive-aggressive. His quiet demeanor comes from the position of a grieving man who, after the loss of his daughter, sees his wife slipping away.
Though The World To Come has recognizable features to other lesbian, period romances, there are aspects of the film that make it compelling. The movie centers on the blooming romance between Abigail and Tallie, yet it is refreshing to see complexities in the male characters. I never expected to pity Dyer while Abigail joyously runs toward emotional and sexual freedom with Tallie and consequently loses interest in him. Abigail’s narration throughout the film is also exquisite. Her words, based on her journal entries, move the story along with an intensity that echoes through each scene. Sure, there are expected moments where the two jump thinking they might get caught, and there are plenty of erotic eye glances that we’ve seen before, but who’s to say we’ve had enough of romantic lesbian period pieces anyway?
The World To Come will premiere in theaters Friday, February 12.