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Dir: Sean Durkin. Starring: Jude Law, Carrie Coon, Charlie Shotwell, Oona Roche, Adeel Akhtar. 15, 107 mins
There are no ghosts to be found in The Nest, but it’s still the story of a woman haunted. At the height of the Eighties, during the flurry of activity that succeeded Thatcher’s deregulation of the financial markets, an expat Brit (Jude Law’s Rory O’Hara) moves his family back home from the US in search of opportunity. The children, Ben (Charlie Shotwell) and Sam (Oona Roche), sullenly adjust to their new schools. But it’s Allison (Carrie Coon) – the wife at home, unemployed until a new stable can be built for her riding school business – who grows increasingly agitated, interned within the walls of their Jacobean estate, somewhere out in the Surrey countryside.
“You’re all strangers to me right now, all of you,” she spits out at her blank-faced family, all of them mystified by the contorting, land-bound seasickness that seems to be taking over Allison. She’s lost her footing. Now she bristles at everyone and everything like she’s being harassed by unwelcome visitors. Sean Durkin’s film is, ostensibly, a drama, though it plays with the conventions of the horror genre: a door is left open by an unseen hand, while secrets lie waiting in the house’s old, half-rotten beams. Cinematographer Mátyás Erdely – who framed László Nemes’s confrontational, but empathetic long takes of his protagonists in Son of Saul and Sunset – glides the camera down cramped corridors, the corners of each frame gobbled up by shadows.
But the hard truth bearing down on this woman isn’t that the dead have come to curse her, as convenient an explanation as it would be for her feelings of unease. She’s haunted only by the false construct of her life, one she’s spent years trying to push to the back of her mind – this is the fourth time in a decade that her husband’s convinced her to up sticks and abandon any feeling of stability. All the time, she’s simply enabled Rory’s blowhard ways, as he regales colleagues and potential clients with descriptions of his New York loft and his pied-à-terre in Mayfair – in truth, there’s barely enough in the bank to pay the phone bill.
The Nest serves as Durkin’s follow-up to his 2011 debut Martha Marcy May Marlene, which starred Elisabeth Olsen as a cult survivor still bound by delusions and paranoia. Together, these films build a picture of his central obsessions as a writer and director – namely, in finding a way to communicate some ineffable sense of dislocation through cinematic language. But The Nest doesn’t quite have the same thematic punch as his previous film. Its depiction of Rory as a man trapped between American individualism and British determinism (where people must simply “settle for their station”) has little to say about either national characteristic or how they drive corporate greed.
The Nest does, at least, give Law and Coon free rein to tear into their roles like lions into a fresh kill. Law, in recent years, has grown more playful with his carved-in-marble looks – he’ll add a gossamer of panic to his usual charms, so that some of his more recent characters (such as the music manager he played in Vox Lux) now play like monarchs realising their empires are starting to slip from their grasp. Coon lets Allison’s internal decay manifest mostly through a micro-shift in expressions – in a swallowed sob, or the aggressive puff of a cigarette. The Nest may be free of the usual phantoms, but here’s a woman in desperate need of some kind of emotional exorcism.