Review: ‘The Nest’ (2020), starring Jude Law and Carrie Coon

November 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Carrie Coon and Jude Law (center) in “The Nest” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Nest” (2020)

Directed by Sean Durkin

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1986 in the United Kingdom and briefly in New York state, the dramatic film “The Nest” features an almost all-white cast of characters (with a few Indians) representing the middle-class, working-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A British businessman and his American wife experience upheavals in their marriage when they move from New York to England so that he can pursue his dream of starting his own consulting firm for commodities brokering.

Culture Audience: “The Nest” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted arthouse dramas that explore issues about marital relationships, social classes and how wealth is perceived as a status symbol.

Carrie Coon and Jude Law in “The Nest” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

On the surface, “The Nest” is a drama about an upwardly mobile married couple whose lives are frequently upended by the businessman husband’s restlessness to relocate when he finds new opportunities to make more money. Underneath the surface—and what becomes more apparent as the glossy sheen of their seemingly idyllic existence starts to wear off—”The Nest” is really about a power struggle within this marriage. Written and directed by Sean Durkin, “The Nest” features stellar performances from Jude Law and Carrie Coon as the couple at the center of this simmering turmoil and how these two spouses are forced to reckon with some messy and uncomfortable truths.

At the beginning of “The Nest,” which takes place in 1986, married couple Rory O’Hara (played by Law) and Allison O’Hara (played by Coon) seem to have a “perfect” life in New York state. Rory, who’s originally from England, works for a commodities brokerage firm. Allison, who’s a New York native, works for a place that does horse training. They both seem to be happily married and they live in a comfortably upper-middle-class suburban home with their two children: 10-year-old son Benjamin, nicknamed Ben (played by Charlie Shotwell) and daughter Samantha, nicknamed Sam (played by Oona Roche), who is about 16 or 17 years old.

Sam is Allison’s daughter from a previous relationship, so Rory is Sam’s stepfather. Sam calls Rory by his first name, instead of calling him her father. Sam’s biological father is not seen or mentioned in this story. Ben and Sam were both born in the United States and have never lived in another country before.

There are signs that perhaps because Sam is not Rory’s biological child, Rory doesn’t feel as close to Sam as he does to Ben. Rory is a very attentive father to Ben and will spend time doing things like playing soccer with Ben and his friends. That doesn’t mean that Sam is close to her mother either. Unlike the very obedient Ben, Sam is showing signs of teenage rebellion that will come out in a big way later in the story.

Rory is a very doting and loving husband and father overall, but there are some obvious indications that Rory wants to be a very dominant patriarch in this family. One day, Rory tells Allison that he thinks they should move back to his native England because he’s found an opportunity to make more money. Rory’s former boss/mentor Arthur Davis, who owns his own London-based commodities firm named Davis Trading, has offered Rory an opportunity to start his own consulting firm, with Arthur as the primary investor.

But first, Arthur wants Rory to come back to working for Davis Trading so that Arthur (who is nearing retirement age) can be reassured that he will be making the right investment when Rory is ready to strike out on his own. Allison is very reluctant to move because the family has relocated four times in past 10 years, and where they are currently living in New York state is close to where Allison’s parents live. However, Rory tells Allison: “Things have dried up here … This is a chance to make some real money again.”

Throughout the movie, viewers will see a pattern to Rory’s overly confident sales skills: He manipulates people into thinking that they’re less-than-smart if they don’t go along with his ideas. He plays into people’s “fear of missing out” on a great opportunity, even if deep down he isn’t sure himself if what he’s selling is worthwhile. Rory likes to take risks, which can be an asset in his line of work. But he doesn’t always investigate all the pros and cons of taking that risk. And that short-sightedness can be a detriment to his line of work.

Allison eventually agrees to Rory’s plan because he makes her think that she’s not “visionary” enough if she can’t see that he should seize this opportunity that he wants to give their family more wealth. He also sells her on the idea to move because he tells her that he will be making enough money for her to eventually have her own horse-training business. The children have no choice but to accept their parents’ decision to move to England. They’re not thrilled about it but they’re not upset to the point where anyone is throwing tantrums or having crying fits.

Before they move to England, there’s a very telling scene where Allison spends time at her parents’ home. Allison and her mother (played by Wendy Crewson) have a prickly relationship where they don’t really get along with each other, but they still love each other. Allison is almost sad to be leaving behind her parents to move to England, but she doesn’t really want to admit it too much.

Allison confides in her mother (who doesn’t have a name in the movie) about how she feels about this sudden move to England: “Something doesn’t feel right, Mom.” Allison’s mother replies, “It’s not your job to worry. You leave that to your husband.” Allison responds, “It scares me that you actually think that … I’m not the difficult one here.”

Although the “husband always knows best” mentality is not one that Allison is willing to always believe in theory, it becomes clear that in reality, her marriage has become a manifestation of that belief, whether she likes it or not. Rory has always been the one to decide their financial destiny and when and where they are going to move. He’s the type of husband who insists that he will take care of paying the bills and the wife doesn’t need to know all the details.

In essence, Allison has given Rory a lot of power and trust in their financial future. But this move to England will open her eyes in more ways than one. At first, the move to England goes smoothly. The children seem to quickly get over their fear and sadness about leaving their previous life behind and starting over in a new country when they see the stately (yet slightly shabby) centuries-old mansion that Rory has rented for the family. Rory signed a one-year lease with the option to own.

The mansion is in Surrey, about 30 miles from London: close enough to commute but far enough from the crime and noise of a big city. Allison thinks the mansion is too big for their family, but Rory reassures her that they can afford it. It’s another sign that Allison lets Rory make big decisions without her, since it’s obvious that he signed the lease on the home without even discussing it with Allison first.

The mansion needs some remodeling, but Rory assures Allison that they can afford whatever needs to be done. And best of all for Allison, the mansion has a farm that’s large enough for her beloved horse Richmond. Rory has thoughtfully paid to have the horse shipped from the United States to the family’s new home in England. Rory has also enrolled the children in the best private schools he could find in the area, and he doesn’t make them forget it.

At work, Arthur (played by Michael Culkin) treats Rory like a wayward son who has come back to the fold. Rory and Arthur have some discussions about how working in America has changed Rory to think of bigger and better possibilities. Since Rory achieved the American Dream when he lived in the United States, he tells Arthur that what he learned from that experience can only be an asset to Davis Trading, which Rory believes might be stuck in an old and stodgy British way of thinking.

Rory is eager to impress everyone around him by giving off airs of being a wealthy and successful businessman. Rory has a tendency to boast about his accomplishments and how wealthy he supposedly is. Rory tells Arthur and some business colleagues that he and Allison are keeping a penthouse in New York, and they might get a pied-à-terre in London’s Mayfair district, in addition to the mansion they have in Surrey. Rory also tends to name-drop a lot and very much wants to be considered one of England’s elite businessman.

There are signs that Allison isn’t completely comfortable with the snooty social circles that Rory wants to be a part of, now that he’s working with Arthur again. At a formal dinner party at a grand estate, Arthur’s social wife Patricia (played by Annabel Leventon) introduces Rory and Allison as “Mr. and Mrs. Rory O’Hara.” Allison makes a point of telling her that she would like to be introduced as Allison, not as “Mrs. Rory O’Hara.” Later, when Rory and Allison are at their home, Allison tells Roy that things were much easier in America because they could be more relaxed in social settings, compared to their new lifestyle in Great Britain.

Rory didn’t come back to work for Davis Trading to do boring, small-time deals. He tells Arthur that he’s found a Chicago-based firm that wants to merge with a London-based firm. Rory insists that this firm is a great match for Davis Trading and that it’s time for Arthur to sell the company. It would mean that most of Davis Trading employees will be laid off when the American firm takes over, but Rory doesn’t care because he’s already figured out that his commission for brokering this deal will make him very rich.

Arthur agrees to look over the details of this deal. And later, he tells Rory that he’ll probably do the merger as Rory suggested. Plans are set in motion, and Rory is eager to celebrate. He tells a reliable co-worker named Steve (played by Adeel Akhtar), who is his closest confidant at the firm, about this great news.

But at home, things aren’t so great. The cracks in Rory’s façade begin to show when Allison finds out that the contract workers hired to do remodeling on the family’s new home are refusing to do any more work unless they are paid for the work that they already did. Through a phone conversation with the workers’ supervisor, Allison discovers that Rory paid by a check that bounced, and Rory didn’t follow through on his promise to make things right by paying the workers with a legitimate check. Allison gets even more of a shock when she contacts the bank and finds out that she and Rory only have £600 in their joint account.

When Allison confronts Rory, she’s understandably furious. He reassures her that their financial problems will go away because he’s expecting a huge payday. He doesn’t tell her the details, but he insists that she shouldn’t worry. For a while, Allison is part of this denial state of mind too. Her children hear Allison and Rory arguing, but Allison keeps denying that anything is wrong when the kids (especially sensitive and intuitive Ben) ask her to tell her what’s wrong.

As the weeks stretch on and Rory’s big payday keeps getting delayed, the tensions mount in Allison and Rory’s marriage. It reaches a point where he has to ask her to loan him some money from a secret stash of cash that Allison has for emergencies. Allison has lost so much trust in Rory that when she goes to retrieve the cash, she makes him wait in the hallway so he won’t be able to see where she’s hidden it.

One of the best scenes in the movie is shortly after Rory has told Allison that she has nothing to worry about after she discovers they only have £600 in their joint bank account. They go out to a fancy restaurant and she tests him by saying that if they have nothing to worry about, then she can order whatever she wants on the menu. She proceeds to order some high-priced items before Rory stops her. The looks on their faces say it all: Allison is disgusted, Rory is exposed for being a liar, and Allison has now decided she wants more control in this marriage.

The remainder of “The Nest” shows exactly what happens when this marriage becomes a power struggle between someone who wants to continue to live in a fantasy world and someone who wants to deal with reality. Rory’s family background is also revealed, and it explains why he acts the way that he does and why his self-esteem is so wrapped up in becoming rich. And caught in the crossfire are the children Sam and Ben and even Allison’s horse Richmond.

Through it all, Law and Coon give absolutely impressive and realistic performances as people who have to deal with the false public image they put forth to the world versus the harsh reality of who they truly are. Durkin’s solid direction and engaging screenplay are the spark match to this slow-burn movie, but Law’s and Coon’s performances are what give this movie its real fire. The moody cinematography by Mátyás Erdély is also used to great emotional effect, particularly with the darkly lit Surrey mansion, which is a reflection of the shadowy secrets that this family wants to keep. Even though “The Nest” is set in the 1980s, it’s a cautionary tale that is timeless and relevant as long as people commit desperate acts of deception.

IFC Films released “The Nest” in select U.S. cinemas on September 18, 2020, and on digital and VOD on November 17, 2020.