Greetings again from the darkness. I’d be hard-pressed to name a movie that is more somber, front beginning to end, than this film from director Mona Fastvold (writer of VOX Lux, 2018) and co-writers Ron Hansen (THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, 2017) and Jim Shepard (based on his short story). Allowing only a few sparks of hope in the second act, the film’s ending finds us nearly as beaten down as the four main characters we’ve just watched.
Structured as though Abigail (Katherine Waterston) is reading her own journal entries as they play out in real life, the film captures the brutal conditions of working a hillside farm in upstate New York during 1856. But more than that, it conveys the price of a joyless existence on the frontier, when days were spent adhering to chores. For everyone, this meant little social interaction; and for women this meant cooking, cleaning, and giving birth. Abigail mesmerizes with her balletic poetry in describing the drudgery of her life and marriage to Dyer (Casey Affleck). Dyer is a sullen man who says little, but remains dutiful in his responsibilities. He is attuned enough to allow Abigail her space after diphtheria claims their young daughter … though he seems mostly unchanged by the tragedy.
Abigail’s emptiness and unrequited quest for meaning seem her destiny until the day that new arrivals rent the next farm over. As Finney (Christopher Abbott) guides the wagon by, Abigail and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) lock eyes, signaling to them (and us) that life on the frontier is about to become more exciting than collecting that day’s eggs from the chicken coup. This moment arrives mere weeks after Abigail as narrator has informed us, “With little pride and less hope, we begin the new year.” And just like that, she has hope.
The two women begin to spend days together building a connection first borne from isolation and loneliness, and soon growing into a true relationship. Dyer deals with his wife’s affinity for the new girl with a nonchalance that masks his agitation. Finney, on the other hand, is a quietly simmering man of anger that wreaks of a violent nature just below the surface. These are combustible elements in a world where this type of relationship between women is simply not discussed or admitted.
We witness the beginning, middle, and end of the relationship between Abigail and Tallie. We see how each lights up around the other … although Tallie’s well-coiffed auburn hair always seems out of place in an environment where showers and shampoo would be scarce. It’s really Abigail’s narration and lyrical use of language that propels the story, and as lovely as her words are, the actual pacing of the film is a bit slow at times. Of course, that corresponds to the oppressive bleakness of this world, adding to the challenge for viewers.
The four lead performances are all terrific. The two men have less screen time and certainly less dialogue, but we never once doubt where they stand. Ms. Waterston has been a standout with her work over the past few years, and Ms. Kirby recently posted one of last year’s finest performances in PIECES OF A WOMAN. She’s clearly a star in the making. Composer Daniel Blumberg’s work is a good fit, and cinematographer Andre Chemetoff works wonders with the muted color palette. Bucharest is the stand in for 19th century upstate New York, allowing us to see the harshness. Period lesbian romances are rare, though this is the third in a short period of time along with AMMONITE (2020) and PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (2019). Just prepare yourself for an hour and a half of anguish.
In theaters February 12th, 2021 and on digital March 2nd, 2021