A bleakness permeates, sits heavily, weighted by the unwavering bitterness of winter. It sinks into the marrow of bones, sharp against the fleshy insides of throats and lungs. Such desolation evokes an affecting loneliness. In this blistering cold, Abigail (Katherine Waterston) moves like a husk through a marriage as stiff and empty as the frozen world outside. It is a marriage mostly derived from institutional obligation and survival, tinged with exhaustion. She has fossilized in it and in her bereavement, which is steeped in grief for her dead child. Though Abigail and her husband try to care for each other, their marriage has been drained of any of the feeling it once held and has become a habitual and unremarkable thing. Her life is consumed by the dullest of chores and the deeply introspective journaling meant to placate her curious mind. Her newest neighbor, Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), is more externally spirited, imbued with an aliveness that Abigail has lost in mourning, but suffers at the heavy hand of an abusive husband. When they first catch sight of each other, it is brief and in passing—one lingering gaze filled with interest, warmth, and the promise of companionship.
At first they use chores as an excuse, telling their husbands that they would rather not be alone in their various domestic tasks. That time quickly becomes sacred, a source of happiness unlike any other they have experienced in their lives. They have such limited personal relationships, and they soon become desperate for the closeness between them. Abigail and Tallie are initially as restrained as the narrative itself, unfolding inch by meticulous inch. That restraint, that history of suppression, crumbles in the time they spend alone together, when unfeeling or angry touches are replaced by loving ones. The development of such an organic relationship sends cracks through the false selves they have constructed beneath heteropatriarchal expectation.
Their affection for each other quickly becomes the only thing to alleviate the hurt of their respective marriages. The mundanity of their domestic world is transformed into something holy when they claim it as theirs and kiss headily beside the stovetop, a direct subversion of what the world demands of them as women. The household changes from something like a prison to a place belonging to them, standing at the center of their romance. Abigail tells Tallie she smells like biscuits and the tenderness between them is hallowed, healing their hurt rather being the source of it. It thaws and warms and sews scraps of joy into their lives where it could not otherwise be found. That desire between them is a relief from the rather arduous realities of being a woman in the nineteenth century; it is an escape from the misogyny and heteronormativity that they live with on a larger scale, from the social roles they are forced into.
It is also a way to reclaim their bodies. Their marriages have stripped away most of their bodily autonomy, particularly when it comes to children. They have become objects and instruments of childbirth to their husbands. Abigail expresses exhaustion at how frequently her husband asks her to bear another child for him, despite the still raw loss of her daughter, and Tallie avoids the subject every moment she can. They also belong to their husbands in the most dehumanizing sense, so physical intimacy between them, sexual or otherwise, is forever freeing and completely theirs. It is always a deliberate choice borne of genuine love and desire, rather than one made for them by social convention.
At least plot-wise, the love between Abigail and Tallie is a thing of safety and comfort instead of something socially dangerous. It may be forbidden, but the film is far more concerned with how it heals and soothes and fixes. The focus is on how it saves them rather than any number of ways it might cause their suffering if they were to be found out. To position sapphic love as such a sanctuary is not necessarily new, but still refreshing.
Their love is consuming, melting the biting cold that envelops them. They go for picnics in the woods and save sweet smiles for each other that their husbands have never seen. Abigail calls Tallie her city of joy, and there is no phrase more apt or loving. Tallie is her refuge, her person and place of safety. She is the same for Tallie. The actual love between them—emotion and romance and sweetness and subversion—is itself a refuge. Neither of them even know if other women have been together, only that what they have feels right and comfortable. Every moment they spend curled into each other is one of rest and healing. Their love is sacred and soft, but never devoid of humanity or sensuality or complex emotion. It is never understated or hidden from us, even as they hide from the world.
The World to Come is an incredibly affecting exploration of sapphism and all its multitudes, and the way that sapphism becomes a shelter to Tallie and Abigail is deeply touching. Their story is one of both societal subversion and of personal, intimately felt love and attachment. Though the narrative can be depressing and difficult, it is breathtaking and sincere and warm in all the best places. It is as delicate as the ink that catches and smudges across the page as Abigail writes her verbose journal entries. Sapphic love is wild and organic and instinctive and tender, and to Abigail and Tallie it is sanctuary.
By Jenna Kalishman
Illustration by Emma Baynes