An insecure British trader in New York relocates his family back to the UK at the start of the ’80s financial boom.
Back in 1987 a Volkswagen Golf advertisement showed a beautiful blonde woman in London striding away in anger from her presumably feckless husband towards her reliable old VW, while literally throwing away the rich trappings of her life. There’s a section in 1980s-set cautionary tale The Nest that plays out like a longer and more realistic version of that ad, right down to an impulsively-discarded long black and white fur coat. The advert made a star of model Paula Hamilton, who, it turned out, suffered from addiction issues — news of her real life laying bare the hidden agonies behind the sparkle and conspicuous consumption.
The Nest is very much about the realities behind the facade: the smoke and mirrors of promised but as-yet-unmaterialised wealth, the desperation when things go wrong, the eternal, laid-back power of old money, and the families drenched in misery behind the smiling photos in front of expensive rented Surrey houses (“with an option to buy”).
It’s not a new story, and it wasn’t unique to the 1980s — you can see the line from long before that decade through the 1990s’ glossy magazine photospreads of minor celebs taken in borrowed houses and hotels, to today’s carefully curated family Instagram feeds. Here, though, it is told with an unflinching gaze that suits the boldness of those years.
Jude Law is Rory O’Hara, a Brit from a modest background who, after a blazing start at a small, old school London trading firm, left for a decade in New York —and now has an American wife Allison (Carrie Coon), a 10 year old son Ben (Charlie Shotwell), and a teenage stepdaughter, Sam (Oona Roche). The long-lasting, big money eludes him though, an embarrassing reality to face in America, where the accepted rule is that if you’re good enough and work hard enough riches will follow.
So it’s back to a new job in London with old boss Arthur Davis (Michael Culkin), leaving behind the fake ugly dark wood panelling of his Big Apple house for the genuinely ugly dark wood panelling of a spectacularly gloomy and oversized Surrey mansion (rented, “with an option to buy”). Ben is duly ensconced at a pointlessly expensive day school, Sam at the local comprehensive.
Even before they leave New York, Allison has her doubts about her marriage, but goes anyway, her mother telling her she should support her husband. Allison trains horses — so she’s used to managing temperamental, beautiful beasts — and once in Surrey’s damp green fields Rory buys her an expensive mount while the builders start on her new stables.
Rory is instantly working out big deals that could bring in the big money, while letting colleagues think he already has it. An estate agent is soon tasked with finding them a pied à terre in Mayfair, but by now Allison has discovered they are broke, the builders having downed tools. One day, as Rory realises, panic-struck, that a key contact has stopped returning his calls over a deal, back at home the expensive horse literally collapses under his wife.
Old, posh British country houses endure for centuries, changing hands according to the changing fortunes of their occupiers. Rory and Allison’s half-furnished house, beautiful on the outside but darkly gloomy and full of the ghosts of failed relocations within, is a constant reminder that while the ’80s were defined by money-making, there was actually little new about what was driving it.
Director Sean Durkin makes excellent use of that house as an ancient setting for the same old arguments about money and family, repeated down the centuries. Rory and Allison’s biggest row occurs in their hideous drawing room, which looks like a stage set: dark with a huge sofa and a couple of glowing lamps lighting two people at loggerheads as their life together implodes. The family eats its meals bunched at one end of a table so big it can never be moved. We get shots of Mr and Mrs from a distance, in their vast grounds, looking to anyone watching like Lord and Lady of the manor. Silences (something the Rorys of the world try to avoid at all costs) are punctured by ’80s coffee machines.
For a film of 110 minutes it fairly whizzes by, compellingly, gruesomely, fascinating as Rory once more sets in motion his own fall. There are few laughs beyond the brittle chortles emanating from Allison as she finally tires of her husband’s lies and refuses to go along with his increasingly unlikely claims, and yet there is always something bleakly funny about him.
Both Coon and Law are utterly believable as two lost characters, sniping at each other while existing in worlds that, it turns out, neither fully knows how to navigate.
Law is brilliantly frightening, and frightened, as a man whose whole being is built on shifting sands. With nothing to fall back on — neither money, status nor a proper sense of self — his terror is genuinely existential, far deeper than the actual financial implications his failed deals would warrant, awful though that would be. Colleagues and potential business partners can smell his desperation and increasingly mock his show-offy bluster.
Coon is superb as Allison, a complicated woman who has ceded financial control for what turns out to be reliance on someone else’s dreams. She counters Rory’s growing pile of lies and debt with a retreat to a more earthy, truthful existence. Somehow this, like the phonecall/collapsing horse juxtaposition, and even Allison driving along listening to These Dreams by Heart, never seems too neat. Coon edges Allison expertly from concern to contempt. It’s something relationship counsellors often say there is no coming back from, yet it’s also freeing. Somehow, too, Durkin avoids melodrama, despite The Nest being about a decade that seems in retrospect, constructed for that; even the score sounds like something from Tales Of The Unexpected.
Shotwell and Roche are impressively realistic as tween and teen, one with too much riding on his success and one often ignored. Also realistic are the costumes. Rory may rock a polo under a tweed jacket and love a diamond Argyle sweater worn with nothing underneath, but while his sensible colleague Steve (Adeel Akhtar) has a slightly too wide shouldered overcoat, there’s nothing that looks like it could impede one’s progress through a door, and there’s an understanding that we didn’t wear red striped shirts, neon legwarmers and rara skirts all the time.
The ending is both quiet and audacious. Will Allison stay with her untrustworthy, flash husband? If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen…
Watch the trailer now: