“We hold our friendship between us and study it, as if it were the incomplete map of our escape.” That exquisite line is carefully inscribed in the journal of Abigail (Katherine Waterston), a farmer’s wife in mid-19th-century upstate New York. When their only daughter from diphtheria the previous summer, Abigail and her taciturn husband, Dyer (Casey Affleck), retreated into their separate farmstead labors and settled in for a winter of hushed, fragile discontent. With the dawning of the new year, however, something has changed for Abigail. That something is the arrival of Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), a disarming, flame-haired neighbor who alights on the branch of Abigail’s life like a vibrant bird that has flown 3,000 miles to find her. An intense affection that Abigail does not completely understand blossoms quickly between the two women, and so she expresses it in terms of her most beloved possession, an atlas of the still-expanding United States.

Writer Jim Shepherd (Book of Aron) adapted The World to Come from his own 2017 short story, but something about that aforementioned line suggests the precise, evocative prose of novelist Ron Hansen (Mariette in Ecstasy, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). As it happens, Hansen co-wrote the screenplay to The World to Come with Shepherd, and his fingerprints are all over this marvelous, bittersweet film’s poetic dialogue. Most of it is delivered in voiceover as Abigail chronicles the first six tempestuous months of 1856 on the pages of her personal journal. Director Mona Harold (The Sleepwalker) allows this story to unspool chronologically, stamping each scene with a shot of Abigail’s neat, elegant notation of the day, month, and year. This device is hardly incidental: The World to Come is a film about the gulf between what is recorded in ink and what is experienced firsthand. Dyer’s dry ledger of the farm’s expenses and debts has no space for the quotidian details and stray musings captured in his wife's diary, and that diary in turn cannot truly capture the overwhelming longing and devotion that Tallie kindles in Abigail. Just as an atlas offers a useful but limited representation of a landscape, words can only say so much when it comes to matters of the heart. Luckily, we have cinema.

The grief that Abigail and Dyer have been impotently circling throughout the winter begins to thaw with the appearance of the neighboring farmstead’s new renters, Tallie and her husband, Finney (Christopher Abbott). Tallie more so than Finney: He is something of a petulant tyrant, forever griping about his misfortunes, most of which he seems to lay at his wife’s feet. It’s difficult to discern what the razor-sharp, vivacious Tallie sees in such a man, but marriages in this time and place are pragmatic arrangements and almost never formulated for the net benefit of women. Wedding a man is, in effect, a vow that turns a teenage girl into a cloistered farmhand in calico, isolating her from other people through distance, terrain, and patriarchal control. An undercurrent of anger at this forced seclusion runs through The World to Come, a tight-chested seething embodied in a scene where Abigail is obliged to beg her husband for the 50 cents to purchase the atlas she desires. (He suggests that she use those funds to procure him a gift.) Abigail has no friends before Tallie materializes at her door: “I don’t know anyone,” she observes with a whimper of desperation in her voice.

Tallie is warm, witty, and outspoken, but what draws Abigail to her new neighbor is deeper than a hunger for conversation with a friendly face. Abigail is normally the sort of person who looks away anxiously when speaking to someone, but she can’t take her eyes off Tallie, who stares right back with unashamed fascination. They talk of the weather, livestock, housekeeping, childlessness, and their discontent with their husbands – and all the while, they keep looking at each other with that face-flushing ferocity. It is hog-slaughtering season at Tallie’s farm, which presents an excuse for her to visit Abigail regularly. The women soon become so preoccupied with spending time together that their daily chores begin to suffer for it. This sends Dyer into a predictable snit about his cold supper, but Finney is the greater concern, given how easily provoked he is by the slightest affront to his Bible-thumping entitlement. Whenever Tallie fails to appear at Abigail’s door for more than a day or two, the latter woman paces her farmhouse porch, consumed by worry and powerless to do anything about it.

One reason The World to Come works so fantastically is quite simple: Waterston and Kirby have amazing chemistry. When Tallie eventually breaches the wall of propriety between the women and lightly strokes Abigail’s pinky finger, the emotional effect is like a cluster of fireworks going off. However, it’s clear exactly where their nascent relationship is headed from that first smoldering look that the women share across Abigail’s kitchen table. The actresses sell every last ember of their characters’ attraction, which goes far beyond emotional and physical intimacy to something like romantic obsession. “When the day is done, my thoughts turn to her and I think, ‘Why are we to be separated?’’' ponders Abigail in her journal. It’s here that the story’s undertow of furious resentment begins to reveal itself, as the women stew over the unfairness of a world where a future together feels utterly impossible. Or is it? Is it truly folly to imagine what their escape might look like?

As wonderful as the film’s lead performances are, it is Fastvold’s eloquent and unexpectedly eccentric vision that transforms The World to Come from yet another period romance about white lesbians – and who would have thought that would become an oversaturated subgenre? – into a gorgeous, heartbreaking work. The Norwegian-born Fastvold is perhaps best known for her acting work on the long-running Scandinavian soap opera Hotel Caesar (1998-2017), and The World to Come is only her second feature as a director. However, her storytelling is so distinctive and captivating here that it runs circles around the work of many veteran filmmakers, gracefully balancing a tactile, lived-in sense of place with a forceful, almost overpowering mood of lovesick ache. Fastvold’s direction evokes Jane Campion and Ang Lee at their most swooningly romantic, but it also possesses the shivery foreboding of Tommy Lee Jones’ underappreciated revisionist Western, The Homesman (2014).

The film’s style is supple, sumptuous, and often splendidly impressionistic. Editor Dávid Jancsó flips from stunning wide shots of the glowering landscape to almost abstract close-ups of natural details, while Abigail’s narration marks off the days and gives voice to the murmurs of her heart. André Chemetoff’s breathtaking cinematography captures the harsh, shadowed beauty of the New York woodlands – here played by Romania – lending them a menacing wildness that is rarely afforded to East Coast settings during this historical period. The blue-steel gloom that pervades the film’s outdoor scenes makes the golden light of a farmhouse lantern feel all the warmer. British composer Daniel Blumberg’s unconventional score, meanwhile, proves to be the film’s secret weapon. Favoring woodwinds and plucked strings, the music is wistful, somber, and often startling, but too dreamy to be described as emphatically quirky. In the film’s more chaotic, violent sequences – a harrowing blizzard, a burning homestead – Blumberg indulges his free-jazz roots, as the score spirals into the kind of avant-garde rumbling and shrieking that suggests a horror film

Perhaps this is fitting, given how often period romances about same-sex couples seem to end in bloodshed (or at least heartbreak). However, the rising sensation of apprehension that drenches The World to Come is less about priming the viewer for tragedy than it is about conveying Abigail’s scratching fear and gnashing frustration. The film is a deeply resonant depiction of love’s unpredictable thunderbolt, but it’s also about the agony of being apart. As fervent as Abigail and Tallie’s feelings for one another might be, Waterston and Kirby don’t end up sharing as much screen time as one might expect. The viewer is often bound to experience their love through Abigail’s narration, as she describes not just how cherished Tallie makes her feel, but how distraught she feels for every minute that they are parted. It’s the kind of telling-not-showing that filmmakers are usually wise to avoid, but between Waterston’s performance, Hansen and Shepard’s words, and Fastvold’s daydreamy direction, it all works superbly well.

Not everything about the film is quite so harmonious. The dialogue is studded here and there with lines that feel distractingly anachronistic, most of them delivered by Kirby, although it’s challenging to tell whether the problem lies with the screenplay itself or the English actress’ discomfort with its starchy period vernacular. The oft-underrated Abbott does his best, but he’s saddled with a role that feels excessively repugnant, less a real character than the kind of bigoted, hissable villain that queer love stories (allegedly) require. Affleck, meanwhile, is wonderfully understated (as usual) in a role that is given a surprising amount of empathetic shading in the story’s third act. However, given the allegations regarding Affleck’s behavior on the set of his 2010 directorial feature debut, I’m Still Here, his role as a producer and overall shepherd for this film may be troubling to some viewers, depending on how they feel about supporting the creative endeavors of alleged sexual harassers.

That said, it’s easy to love The World to Come for the many, many things it does right, from Fastvold’s excellent direction to the lyrical screenplay to the rich production design. (Whoever dug up the cast-iron apple peeler for Abigail’s kitchen deserves a steak dinner.) More than anything, what astonishes about the film is how elegantly its components cohere to express the longing to be with someone who sees you, adores you, and exalts you – even when it’s obvious that this starry-eyed fantasy is just that, a fantasy, one doomed to melt away like late February snow. The queer romance that The World to Come most clearly recalls is not a lesbian one, but Ang Lee’s masterpiece Brokeback Mountain (2006), with its frontier spirit, feverish urgency, and bottomless ache. Fastvold’s film captures those same qualities, with added flourishes of feminine fury and sapphic mystery. It makes for an intoxicating combination.

Rating: B+

The World to Come is now available to rent from major online platforms.