Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

It seems that period lesbian dramas are having a moment: 2019 saw “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” while “Ammonite” and “The World to Come” both premiered in 2020. The last of the three, first shown in the 2020 Venice Biennale, was screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. The film — starring Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”) and Katherine Waterston (“Inherent Vice”) alongside Casey Affleck (“Manchester by the Sea”) and Christopher Abbott (“Possessor”) — dramatizes the 2017 short story of the same name by Jim Shepard, who once taught creative writing at the University of Michigan.

“The World to Come” is set in upstate New York, spanning several months of the year 1856. Abigail (Waterston) and Dyer (Affleck) have a modest farm in Schoharie County, set far enough from town that most days are rather isolated. Having lost a child to diphtheria in the fall of 1855, there remains a pall over the home only made darker by the penetrating winter cold. On one such grey and icy day Abigail remarks, “I have become my grief.”

A thaw is on the horizon, however, as a couple has just rented a neighboring farm, and with one glance between Abigail and Tally (Kirby), a sense of intrigue and attraction develops. As Tally’s visits to Abigail become frequent, the women become fast friends. Neither has a happy home, as Tally’s husband Finney (Abbott) is generally disagreeable (the wonderful word used in the film is “asperity”), and both husbands expect children. Friendship tenderly grows into love as the women become collaborators, keeping the truth of their union hidden from their increasingly suspicious husbands. 

Over the slow, hearth-warmed and toilsome scenes of pastoral life is Abigail’s poetic narration. We see her writing often in her ledger, the counterpart to her husband’s balance sheet, wherein she takes stock of life’s more intangible assets: joy and grief. 

Arranged chronologically, Abigail’s entries shape the way we see her world by letting us into her mind. Between these musings and the electrifying tremolo of her encounters with Tally, Abigail’s simple contentment and dispiriting imprisonment are made real.

The simplicity of life for the characters in this film is its greatest asset in creating an empathetic world, albeit one far removed from our own. Against this backdrop, the literary quality of Abigail’s thoughtful narration and the complexity of these human relationships stands out in living color.

The film’s simplicity extends to its visuals, in the clean and undistracting manner of a good stage set. Apparently shot on film, the softness of tone and inconsistent sharpness reflect the tenderness of the film’s romance. An emphasis on nature and the changing seasons means that much of the visual mood is constructed by atmosphere. Shot over the course of different seasons, weather forms an important part of the narrative as its fickle whims reflect the brutality and impulsivity of man.

Equally climatic is the score, composed with chilling effect by Daniel Blumberg (“GUO4”). Largely unobtrusive, a blizzard prompts the mellow score to swell in intensity and anxiety, mimicking the squeals of frightened livestock in a flurry of sharp atonal jazz. Frenzied moments like this one, with the actors barely visible in white-out conditions yet so compellingly committed to their environment, counterbalance the slower scenes with brilliant intentionality.

Importantly, this film is not just pretty pictures and stellar performances. There is meditation on what love entails, on a 19th-century farm and more universally. Dyer’s love for Abigail, communicated in one simple line, “I would die without you,” is a practical love. 

Abigail’s friendship with Tally is remarkable for its ordinariness, and as it grows into romance, it becomes a forbidden love. Screenwriters Ron Hansen (“Mariette in Ecstasy”) and Jim Shepard (“And Then I Go”) gave much consideration to historicity, which is evident in the way 19th-century norms and gender roles are represented and fought.

Director Mona Fastvold (“The Sleepwalker”) has created a complete work of art. Drawing on the creative power of four precise performers, a skilled composer and thoughtful screenwriters, “The World to Come” is an evocative and memorable addition to the LGBTQ+ film canon. Gracefully executed, the film is meant to be savored: perhaps in front of a crackling fire, so that one might imagine themselves too on a cold winter’s day in 1856.

Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at rhorg@umich.edu.