Vanessa Kirby uncovers lesbian pioneer history in 'The World to Come'

Andrew MARSZAL
·3-min read
British actress Vanessa Kirby won Venice festival honors and is considered a frontrunner for the best actress Oscar

Vanessa Kirby shot to global fame as young Princess Margaret in "The Crown," winning plaudits for her sultry and tragic portrayal of the British queen's headstrong younger sister.

In "The World to Come," out Friday, the English actress plays another complex and passionate woman grappling with the impossible pressures and conventions of her era -- this time, the 19th-century US frontier.

The movie follows two farmers' wives trapped by a brutal winter in pre-Civil War America, with only their neglectful husbands for company, until an unexpected and forbidden affair develops between them.

"I love women that are sort of ahead of their time, in their thoughts," Kirby told AFP.

"I didn't want her to seem like a wide-eyed ingenue trying to work out the world... I wanted people to imagine that she has a modern energy."

Just as Princess Margaret was forced to split from divorced war hero Peter Townsend, history is full of big female personalities who were "caged in" by society's expectations of how they should act, said Kirby.

Women like the fictional pioneer farmer's wife Tallie "had to straitjacket themselves" and were afforded "absolutely zero choice of what you do with your life, or your time, or your love, or your heart."

"It's also a sort of ode to the women that may have tried to go beyond the system, and have sacrificed their life for it, ultimately," added Kirby.

The likes of 2005's "Brokeback Mountain" have depicted same-sex historical wilderness romance before.

But big-screen historical lesbian romances have "taken a really long time to catch up," said Kirby.

A recent crop has included acclaimed French drama "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," and Kate Winslet's "Ammonite."

"It's a course correction -- a lot of people are sort of saying 'Ah, so many corseted lesbians all of a sudden!'" joked co-star Katherine Waterston.

"I think actually it's just a few. And that's a problem --- there's lots of stories that need to be told."

- 'Bazillion reasons' -

"The World to Come" is produced by Oscar-winner Casey Affleck, who co-stars as one of the women's husbands.

He re-teamed with Ron Hansen, the author of the novel "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," on which Affleck's breakthrough 2007 film of the same name was based.

"These stories have usually been told about the guy on the ranch in the 19th century... his wife comes in and out of the story, in the way that my character comes in and out of the story in our movie," Affleck told AFP.

Affleck insisted on a female director in Mona Fastvold, and said Hollywood was belatedly waking up to storytelling from a woman's perspective.

"For a bazillion reasons that people are talking about more now, we've seen basically the same people at the center of the story," he said. "We've gotten used to that -- and there are all these other stories, of course."

Tallie and Abigail (Waterston) must run their isolated households and help out on the farms while contending with freezing winters, frequent disease and even the loss of a child.

The latter is a common theme with Kirby's other recent Oscar-tipped film "Pieces of a Woman," in which her character's home birth goes tragically wrong.

Kirby won Venice festival honors and is considered a frontrunner for this year's best actress Academy Award for her performance in the movie, which also chronicles a marriage spiraling out of control, largely from the female perspective.

"The World to Come" opens in theaters Friday, and via streaming from March 2.

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