'The Nest': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
An elegant, eerie drama of marital distress.

Playing a couple whose relationship starts to buckle after a move to England from New York, Jude Law and Carrie Coon star in Sean Durkin's first feature since 'Martha Marcy May Marlene.'

If you didn't know better, you might almost imagine that The Nest, writer-director Sean Durkin's long awaited follow-up to his debut Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), was inspired by a lost Henry James novel. Although it's set in the mid-1980s, this story about an Anglo American family fraying at the edges after a transatlantic move is a hyper-nuanced study of marriage mind games, cultural misunderstanding and stifling gender expectations.

A beautifully modulated chamber piece, played by a crack ensemble led by Jude Law as a flashy Cockney on the make and Carrie Coon as his increasingly disillusioned American wife (think Portrait of a Lady's Isabel Archer, but chain-smoking and wild in the sack), The Nest lingers long after the final credits. It may not have the same surprising newness that juiced the debut of Martha Marcy, but it casts an ineffable spell nevertheless.

A key collaborator for Durkin here is Hungarian DP Matyas Erdely, who worked with Durkin on Southcliffe, a limited series set in the U.K. about a town surviving a series of shootings. Known for his cinematography on Laszlo Nemes' Holocaust drama Son of Saul, composed entirely of close-ups, Erdely devises with Durkin a shot list that follows a rigorous if enigmatic logic, favoring long-distance takes outside and protracted master shots indoors that keep the characters at an inscrutable remove but seemingly cohesive as a group. Once we get to know the characters better, the camera literally gets up close and personal with them even as the family members become isolated from one another, seldom together in the same shot.

When first met, the O'Hara clan looks like a Ralph Lauren double-page spread come to life. While dashing English-import Rory (Law) brings home bacon from Wall Street, his wife Allison (Coon) runs a riding school near their suburban home. Her smart-mouthed but basically sweet teenage daughter Sam (Oona Roche, from The Morning Show) from a previous marriage has a warm relationship both with Allison and her stepfather, and even gets on well with her little half-brother Benjamin (in demand 12-year-old Charlie Shotwell, Captain Fantastic).

When Rory comes home one day and tells Allison that the Manhattan financial scene is in a slump and he has a great opportunity to build something from the ground up if they move to London, she's decidedly unsure, especially since Rory doesn't have any family back home to help them get settled in. But even her own mother (Wendy Crewson) is of the opinion that the reason a woman gets married is so she doesn't have to make decisions anymore.

With little more than a dissolve cut to mark the shift, the move is made and Allison and the kids pull up in a taxi at their new home, a sprawling 19th century neo-Gothic mansion in the Surrey countryside with lofty high ceilings and acres of surrounding land. Having shipped Allison's beloved black thoroughbred stallion Richmond over from America, they hire builders to construct a stable and practice arena while the kids get settled at new schools.

However, despite his impressive bullshitting skills, Rory is not the whiz kid he makes himself out to be. The much-touted new opportunity in London effectively depends on his being able to persuade his old boss Arthur (a splendidly splenetic Michael Culkin) into accepting a buyout from an American company for which Rory would get a finder's fee. When that falls through, the bills stop getting paid, and Allison is forced to become the first farmhand in the South Downs to own a chinchilla coat. Sam falls in with some wilder local kids from the area ("Let's get some speed!" is arguably the most authentically '80s youth-speak in the movie), and poor lonely Ben is being bullied at school. Even Richmond is failing to thrive in his new paddock.

Durkin writes in the film's press notes that the film was partly inspired by his own experience of transatlantic living as a kid in the '80s and '90s and how struck he was at the time by the vast cultural differences between the two places, a gap much narrowed today. The film's spooky editing rhythms and Erdely's masterful use of penumbral back lighting enhance that disjointed, out-of-kilter feeling. Meanwhile, Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry's string-led soundtrack adds a spaced-out melancholy vibe that's both classy and faintly menacing, and represents an interesting contrast to the choice cuts of vintage mid-'80s Britpop, including early tracks by The Cure, Bronski Beat and the Thompson Twins.

Just as musical in its way is the orchestration of the performances, which start out quiet, pastoral and piping and become an operatic, ferocious din. This is especially true during a climactic sequence that sees Sam throwing a party at the house while Allison and Rory's marriage approaches a breaking point at a fancy restaurant with clients and Rory's affable colleague Steve (Adeel Akhtar). Coon, in particular, displays some of that phenomenal range that those familiar with her work on HBO's The Leftovers and on stage with the Steppenwolf theater company have come to know. Durkin really lets her rip here with shots that just hold on her face as emotions flicker past like fast scuttling clouds and sequences where she gets to show off a physicality that's mesmerizing without any dialogue. Law, in excellent form here, nevertheless seems sometimes eclipsed by Coon until he gets a powerful if somewhat on-the-nose scene with Anne Reid as his hard-as-brass mother.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres) 
Production: A Filmnation Entertainment, BBC Films presentation with the participation of Telefilm Canada of an Element Pictures production in association with Elevation Pictures, Substitute Films
Cast: Jude Law, Carrie Coon, Charlie Shotwell, Oona Roche, Adeel Akhtar, Wendy Crewson, Anne Reid, Michael Culkin, James Nelson-Joyce
Director-screenwriter: Sean Durkin
Producers: Ed Guiney, Derrin Schlesinger, Rose Garnett, Sean Durkin, Amy Jackson, Christina Piovesan
Executive producers: Andrew Lowe, Polly Stokes, Jude Law, Ben Browning, Glen Basner, Alison Cohen, Milan Popelka
Director of photography: Matyas Erdely
Production designer: James Price
Costume designer: Matthew Price
Editor: Matthew Hannam
Music: Richard Reed Parry
Music supervisor: Lucy Bright
Casting: Shaheen Baig, Susan Shopmaker
Sales: FilmNation, UTA

No rating, 107 minutes