The season for redheads is in full swing. Michelle Pfeiffer’s tresses, in “French Exit,” are a study in autumnal russet-gold, and Vanessa Kirby, playing a woman named Tallie, in “The World to Come,” sports a magnificent mane of flame. Just to complete the effect, her complexion, we are told, “has an underflush of rose and violet.” Mona Fastvold’s film begins in 1856, and I kept expecting to see the entire Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood racing after Tallie, waving their brushes and begging her to pose.

Tallie is one of two heroines. The other is Abigail (Katherine Waterston), and she is our guide to the story. “With little pride, and less hope, we begin the new year,” she says at the start, in voice-over; we also observe her writing in her journal. Might this patient exercise in show-and-tell not be too much of a good thing? That’s how the movie struck me at first blush, and some of Abigail’s outpourings sound like the losing entries in a school poetry competition—“My heart is like a leaf borne over a rock by rapidly moving water.” And yet, in retrospect, the purpose of her narration becomes clear: here is a godly soul, striving to bring order to experiences that are, she fears, so wild and so harsh that they will not be tamed.

We are in upstate New York, in tough country, where you can all but perish in a snowstorm. Abigail and her husband, the brooding Dyer (Casey Affleck), have already lost a young daughter to diphtheria, and any affection between them has died in the wake of grief. “My reluctance seems to have become his shame,” she says. Their habits are spartan; for her birthday, he gives her a box of raisins, a needle case, and a tin of sardines. The stage is therefore set for the arrival of Tallie, a new neighbor, who, despite being married to Finney (Christopher Abbott)—another killjoy—brings passion, color, and highly strokable knitwear. Her birthday present to Abigail is an atlas, hinting at far horizons, plus a pot of applesauce and an egg. Luxury!

The women, having become boon companions, proceed toward maximum boon. There’s a shot of Abigail, stretched out in rapture after a visit from Tallie, lying back on a table with her arms flung wide; it’s an extraordinary sight, so much so that Fastvold didn’t need to boost it with a warbling soprano on the soundtrack. But ecstasy, like other thrills, is a rare commodity in this time and place, and the principal legacy of “The World to Come”—unusually, for a costume picture—is a sense of bridled anger, at all that will never be said and done. “Tallie kept strict custody of her eyes,” Abigail reports, after the couples have dined together. Happiness is best confined to dreams and flashbacks, for the bulk of life is hard labor. When Dyer has a fever, his wife administers “an enema of molasses, warm water, and lard. Also a drop of turpentine next to his nose.” Ah, the romance of the past. ♦

Published in the print edition of the February 15 & 22, 2021, issue, with the headline “Small Pleasures.