Filmmakers often wax nostalgic when they look back on the 1960s, but nobody seems to remember the 1980s with much affection. It was the era of Reagan and Thatcher, when the finance industry was deregulated and fortunes made overnight. It laid the foundations for the exorbitant wealth of the present day, with its roller-coaster markets, its extremes of inequality and incendiary politics.
One of the catalysts was the so-called ‘Big Bang’ of 1986 in which the Thatcher government threw out the rule book that held the local stock market in check. The volume of trading increased dramatically as many of the old brokerage firms were swallowed up by large international merchant banks.
This is the setting for The Nest, a family drama entangled in the world of high finance. It’s a movie that can’t quite make up its mind about what it wants to do, being by turns the story of a marriage falling apart, a moral parable about greed and love of money, and a low level horror feature. This identity crisis is partially obscured by the quality of the acting and cinematography, but the story-telling suffers from too many competing motivations.
Sean Durkin, who is both director and scriptwriter, has said this film is partially based on his own childhood experiences, and maybe that’s why The Nest is good on details and and set pieces, but unable to gather the threads into a satisfactory narrative. We never see our own lives in terms of a beginning, middle and end. Life unfolds in an episodic fashion, lacking the sense of wholeness and resolution we look for in a novel or a movie.
The tale begin in the United States, with Jude Law’s Rory O’Hara on the phone scouting for business. He’s at home with the family, feeling that things are not going his way. His wife, Allison (Carrie Coon), has an established business as a horse trainer and riding teacher, his son, Ben (Charlie Shotwell) and step-daughter Samantha (Oona Roche), are settled into their respective schools.
When Rory breaks it to Allison that he wants the family to relocate to London because he has an unbeatable offer from his old mentor, stockbroker Arthur Davis (Michael Culkin), she reminds him this will be their fourth move in ten years. The decisive argument is not Rory’s big opportunity, but rather that he’s run out of options in America and they’ll soon be broke.
This first part of the story moves slowly, letting us become acquainted with the characters before the shift to London. When Allison and the kids arrive to join Rory they find he’s rented an enormous, rambling mansion in Surrey, with more rooms than they could ever need, and grounds for stables. He’s got Ben into an exclusive private school and bought a new horse for Allison. It’s obvious Rory is wasting no time in preparing for his new life as a mega-rich entrepreneur.
As the family tries to get used to the creepy old house, Rory returns to Arthur’s office as the prodigal-made-good, armed with first-hand experience of the voracious world of American finance. He talks big, splashes the cash and rapidly assumes a special status within the firm. He has huge plans and is already spending the money he intends to earn, driven by an outlandish self-confidence.
His colleagues are disarmed by Rory’s gung-ho approach, but Allison has seen it all before and is feeling increasingly anxious about where this is heading. That feeling is being echoed by Sam, who dislikes her school and is entering the years of teenage rebellion; and by Ben, who is scared of the house and is adjusting poorly to his own school. As the relationship between Rory and Allison deteriorates Ben feels a creeping fear that his parents will separate. We realise the house is haunted not by a ghost, but by the evil spirit of an unravelling marriage.
Rory has a grand scheme but events fail to follow the script in his head. Allison, a strong personality forced into a subservient role, feels uncomfortable with the house and even more uncomfortable when she is paraded around as a trophy wife. She is unable to keep smiling sweetly while Rory plies his listeners with outrageous lies about his personal wealth, the properties he owns or is about to buy, and so on. This leads to a series of uncomfortable incidents, culminating in a major melt-down as she can no longer control her fury at her husband’s self-aggrandising banter.
With the walls closing in Rory grows ever more manic in his claims, sounding like a demented super-salesman. Naturally he believes the only problem is that the people around him are too small-minded and unambitious to share his glorious vision. It’s not that he doesn’t love his wife and kids – after all, he’s doing it all for them.
Rory has told Allison that his parents are dead, but we learn that his old mum actually lives in a humble council flat. Until now he hasn’t bothered to inform her she has a ten-year-old grandson. If he goes to see his mother at all it’s to boast about his mansion in Surrey. It’s the fantasy of a self-centred working-class climber whose career is an ongoing fiction. As that fantasy stalls the film becomes literally much darker, a nocturnal horror of Rory’s own making.
If The Nest aims to portray Rory as the creation of a newly uncontrolled finance market, it doesn’t succeed in drawing the link between his personal folly and the broader political landscape. His psychopathology is so overwhelming he would be just as ambitious in any line of work. Rory’s tragedy is that he is a would-be shark who makes his move too early, before stiff, class-conscious Britain has become completely immersed in the delusions of stock market grandeur that are emerging on Wall Street. The house is a symptom of his impatience – he wants the mansion straight away. It becomes a symbol of his personal downfall while London still teeters on the brink of the financial explosion that will make it the marketplace of the world.
Written & directed Sean Durkin
Starring Jude Law, Carrie Coon, Oona Roche, Charlie Shotwell, Michael Culkin, Adeel Akhtar, Anne Reid, Wendy Crewson
UK/Canada, rated MA 15+, 107 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 6 February, 2021