British Film Festival review: The Nest

★★★☆☆

The Nest is writer and director Sean Durkin’s follow up to his 2011 debut film, Martha Marcy May Marlene. But in contrast to the illusive subjectivity of Martha Marcy, here, Durkin withdraws; a silent observer of a mid-80s family unravelling.

The film follows Rory O’Hara (Jude Law), a businessman (or perhaps a conman) who moves his wife, Allison (Carrie Coon), and their two children, Samantha (Oona Roche) and Ben (Charlie Shotwell), from America to England, Rory’s birthplace. Rory tells Alison that he’s been offered a job by an old friend and mentor who, in Rory’s words, has brought him in to shake up a tired 1980s market on the precipice of a great change. Rory’s plan is to take what he’s learnt in America, where, according to him, “everyone is their own boss,” and educate England on the idea that one can and should have it all. The irony being, of course, that Rory was forced out of America when his opportunities dried up, and the only way he can hope to achieve his American Dream is by leaving the very country that spawned the concept.

There’s something distinctively Gatsby-like about Rory’s approach to money. Being in England doesn’t quieten his belief in capitalist idealism, rather, it exacerbates it. Being back in his homeland, Rory is reminded of his perceived shortcomings, his shame of growing up poor. He compensates by renting his family a large manor in Surrey, complete with a stable he can’t afford to finish building and amenities he can’t afford to pay for. He buys Allison an expensive fur coat from Harrods (a half-gift, half-apology for forcing the family to move for the fourth time in ten years), and he sends Ben to the best private school around (though Samantha, who is his stepdaughter, is sent to the local public school).

In one scene, Rory ventures outside of his extravagant country manor and his high-rise office to visit his estranged mother in a different, poorer part of London – one which perhaps best represents his upbringing; the very environment which formed him. When Rory tells his mother she has a 10-year-old grandson, he makes no mention of Samantha. Perhaps he knows his mother, a seemingly prickly woman, would judge him, think less of his taking in an unmarried woman who already had a child when they met. Or perhaps it’s to shield his own shame, to preserve the nuclear family he’s created for himself: a beautiful, blonde American wife and a young son, the progeny through whom he can correct the faults of his own childhood.

Soon enough, though, Allison grows tired of playing role Rory has assigned her. Perhaps being in England, where she is the outsider, allows her to observe him in another light; barely able to contain her disgust at his desperate need to impress, as he lies about summering in Portugal and attending the theatre. She is exhausted by the artifice, and while she disapproves of Rory’s paternalism and society’s encouragement of it, she is acutely aware that, in the mid-80s, a woman’s capacity for financial freedom and individualism is limited by the stature of her husband. More than that, a part of Allison clings to the extravagant lifestyle to which she has grown so accustomed, one that was established early in her and Rory’s relationship, when he whisked her away from a life of cheap apartments and single motherhood. Coon, in an extraordinary performance, plays that tragedy, and strange triumph, with a forceful yet restrained resolve, embodying all the self-loathing, growing anger, and doubt of a woman without agency.

Things come to a head in the final third of the film: Samantha is throwing a party at the manor, filled with local kids drinking, doing drugs, and vandalising the property, while a terrified Ben hides himself away. Meanwhile, Rory and Alison are at a dinner in London with prospective clients, a deal which he ultimately blows. Alison abruptly leaves the table, she doesn’t return home. Instead, she goes to a bar, throws back a vodka lime, then another, and another, and dances alone until the early hours of the morning; a cathartic expression of all of the pent-up frustration and anger that she’s fought to repress.

Meanwhile, a despondent Rory ventures home. In the back of a taxi, he speaks openly with his driver in an exchange akin to Confession, perhaps more honest than we’ve seen him throughout the entire film. His secretthat he has no money left—is met not with compassion, but disdain, as the driver effectively tells Rory to go and earn a wage like everybody else. “I want more than that, thanks,” Rory responds. But when asked what it is he wants, Rory is silent. He doesn’t know. He’d never considered it in such precise terms.

Aided by cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, Durkin’s characters speak in unlit rooms and in the shadows of a living room inside a crumbling English manor, as they argue about the survival of the family experiment. Indeed, part of The Nest’s success lies in Durkin’s ability to imbue a scene with a sense of unknowable terror; suggesting that there is something darker and more depraved lingering just beneath the surface. In doing so, he enables the audience to perceive what is really a family drama as something more akin to a thriller, or even a horror. In reality, the idea at film’s core is a simple one. It’s ultimately about family: not as a cohesive unit, but as a sum of changeable parts; permanently impacted by the decisions each member makes and reacting in response to those decisions. But amid the film’s darkness, the family’s loss of something—many somethings—unearths something else: a strange, weary sort of hope. They’re broken, but they’re still standing.

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