The Nest

Plenty of atmosphere and an interesting set up, but hints at malevolence lose momentum and early promise leads nowhere

MA15+, 107 minutes

2 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It’s hard to see how many of the things that happen in this movie set a short while ago could happen today. The gift of a full-length mink coat, introductions that elide a wife’s first name, smoking in restaurants. It’s all so yesterday.

Not that this is any problem. It’s just all the more reason to visit the 1980s and ruminate on how that decade got us to the place we are in now.

The technological revolution was coming, but hadn’t arrived. No one is to be seen on a smart phone.

The giver of the fur coat is Rory O’Hara, an Englishman of obscure origins played by Jude Law.  He is a high-flying entrepreneur who started out on the trading floor of the stock exchange. His American wife, Allison (Carrie Coon), who trains young equestrians and breeds horses, is as down-to-earth as her husband is big picture.

A snippet from the radio news places The Nest in Ronald Reagan’s America. Which of course means that the American President’s ideological soulmate of laissez-faire capitalism, Margaret Thatcher, is ensconced at Number 10 Downing Street.

It’s important backstory to the drama. The O’Haras and their two children are moving from East Coast US to a mock Tudor pile in the Surrey countryside. Allison has no say in the decision to relocate to another country, nor does she have a say in the kind of house they live in. The family have already moved a number of times in the last ten years.

But it’s not her job to worry, her mother tries to reassure her, it’s her husband who makes the decisions. Even as she has to wear the consequences, like dealing with unsettled, confused kids. Writer and director, Sean Durkin, who experienced a family move to England during his own childhood, is apparently speaking from experience.

No pre-teen like Ben (Charlie Shotwell), Allison and Rory’s son, is going to be impressed by wooden floors in the house that were laid down during the 1700s, not if his new home gives him the creeps. His older sister, Sam (Oona Roche), is also deeply unimpressed, but then any mid-teen forced to live in an isolated country manor is likely to be.

Rory is so busy at work trying to identify the next best business opportunity that he barely notices how his wife and children are struggling in their splendid new setting. Too big and draughty? All they need do is close the doors of the empty rooms.

Rory has big plans for restoring the manor house and building new stables, but gets drawn up short when he finds he cannot pay the bills. The tradesmen stop work, the landline connection is cut. Allison starts diving into her secret supply of cash, and goes to work at a nearby farm.

Rory likes taking Allison out to impress his colleagues. Some of the film’s best scenes take place when she refuses to play along. Lead actors Coon and Law are each very convincing.

Durkin’s first fiction feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene, his haunting drama about not knowing who you are, was genuinely impressive. It was, like The Nest, a mystery thriller that relied heavily on excellent acting to generate real disquiet, rather than a razzmatazz of special effects.

the dimly lit country mansion never looks like anything less than a crime scene, whoever the perpetrator may be

That’s not to say The Nest doesn’t create powerful ambience. It is very atmospheric. The dimly lit country mansion never looks like anything less than a crime scene, whoever the perpetrator may be.

Several solo musical instruments, including a spare moody piano, set us on edge with the film’s original score. Minimalism demonstrating, yet again, that less is more.

But as tensions mount, the film is never quite sure whether it wants to be a mystery thriller in the gaslight mode, or a thoughtful marriage drama set at the time of Reaganomics. Returning expat Rory has plenty to say about the ‘small country’ mindset of the land of his birth, compared to the  bold risk-taking and dynamic entrepreneurship back in the US. Durkin’s screenplay is nothing if not thoughtful.

And yet, the mystery surrounding the sudden death of Allison’s prized horse and the scenes suggesting Allison is being observed or stalked by a malevolent force lose momentum. The Nest sets the scene but it doesn’t go anywhere.

First published in the Canberra Times on 6 February 2021