19th century farmer Dyer and his dutiful wife Abigail were driven apart by the death of their young daughter, Nellie. Since the couple cannot bridge the emotional gap, the couple lead a largely separated life on their property. When Finney and his flame-haired wife Tallie rent a neighboring farm, Abigail finally has someone to talk to and she forges a strong bond with Tallie. Sisterhood sparks sparks of forbidden desire and the two women begin a passionate affair.
The heart desires what it can’t have in the impotent romance of director Mona Fastvold, which Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard adapted for the screen from one of the short stories of his acclaimed 2017 collection. Beautifully crafted and blessed with sensual lead performances by Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby, The World To Come contains numerous cut-outs from its source material and relies heavily on the voice-over narration of diary entries to convey the fluctuating emotions of a female character. These prosaic reflections that mark the changing of the seasons in New York State in 1856 with terrifying frequency are ornate – « My self-education seems to be the only way to keep my unhappiness from overwhelming me » – but they break the flow of the narrative and refuse to convey inner turmoil to the actors with their eyes and gestures …
The cinema speaks a different and just as rich language as literature, but Fastvold’s image becomes speechless in translation. Cinematographer Andre Chemetoff complements the ubiquitous inner monologue with bleached-colored images of a pastoral idyll, at the mercy of Mother Nature. Particularly noticeable is a sequence in a swirling snowstorm that contrasts the subdued darkness of an outbuilding in which a character is seeking protection with the rushing expanse of white that greets another as he dares to venture into the storm with a rope around his waist to handcuff her to the house.
The story takes place on the east coast and initially revolves around the hard-working farmer Dyer (Casey Affleck) and his wife Abigail (Waterston). It’s been a year since diphtheria snatched four-year-old Nellie from the couple’s loving arms, and they never talk about her loss. Desperately lonely in each other’s company, Dyer and Abigail silently share breakfast with a freshly baked potato before performing their farm duties and then retreating to opposite sides of a cold marriage bed. When pig farmer Finney (Christopher Abbott) and his wife Tallie (Kirby) rent a neighboring property, Abigail finally has someone to talk to.
Sisterhood ignites forbidden passion, and Abigail and Tallie begin an affair that eases the drudgery of their everyday lives. Dyer sees changes in Abigail’s face. « Without you, I would die, » he whispers to his wife as the couple share a rare bedtime hug. « Then you’re safe because I’m here, » she replies plaintively.
The World To Come is a picturesque study of female desire that works most effectively when Abigail fails to use the pen of her diary. Stylized dialogues have a pleasant rhythm and a lyrical quality. The electrical charge on the screen between Waterston and Kirby is palpable, and Fastvold’s direction revels in lingering glances and stolen touches. Wild sexual devotion is reserved for a montage of sad memories. Based on Abigail’s narration, Abbott’s alleged abusive spouse is limited to a handful of scenes and feels malnourished in the company of other weathered characters.
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