Set discretely during the 1980s, with the premierships of Thatcher and Reagan narrated by offscreen radios and the ‘Big Bang’ predicted on television just round the corner, neoliberalism’s presence in Sean Durkin’s The Nest is blatant, yet in a sense, strikingly absent. It is this absent presence and the tensions such a contradiction creates that are expressed in the film’s principal subject matter: family.
The Nest broadly follows British expatriate Rory O’Hara’s (Jude Law) return to Britain with his American-born family. He had made his money as a commodity trader, yet it becomes clear that his high-flying lifestyle is now little more than an illusion. While the next ‘big deal’ repeatedly flounders, Rory’s self-peddled fantasy begins to tear him away from Allison (Carrie Coon), his wife, and their two children (Oona Roche, Charlie Shotwell).
Last Trinity, I took the Changing Identities module (BIF7) that covers twentieth century British political, social and cultural history. This involved, predictably, writing an essay on Thatcherism but also an opportunity to study changing attitudes toward crime. I ended up finding the two topics intensely related. The historian Matthew Grimley argues that there is an excessive focus on what Thatcherism ‘achieved’, largely economic, over what it ‘represented’. This, for Grimley, and millions of voters during the 1980s, was moral revival. Thatcher and her cronies often bemoaned a ‘moral decline’ in British society, focusing on issues of divorce, teen-pregnancy, crime rates and (what they believed to be) laziness.
It has become cliché to point out that Thatcher’s comment that ‘there’s no such thing as society’ is often taken out of context, as she went on to state that ‘there are individual men and women and there are families [my italics]’. Yet completing the quote is nonetheless (and perhaps the fact it is often half-forgotten today, present yet absent, tells us something) essential to understanding a crucial part of the Thatcher appeal – she wanted to reassert the family’s centrality both in moral ‘values’ and social organisation. The Nest is an exploration of the Thatcherite tension between an attack on ‘society’, a wide social net, alongside the valorisation of family: by 1990 widespread deregulation and privatisation had been achieved, yet divorce-rates had sky-rocketed.
The tension between rampant capitalism and family is already represented well by contemporary British-consumed, if American-made, crime-films. I’m thinking particularly of things like The Godfather Trilogy (1972-90) or Goodfellas (1990); films that brought out the tensions found between ‘family values’, greed, violence, ‘individualism’ and crime. Such typically fraught family relations can also be found in The Nest (notably also a British-American project), yet it is also tinged with something more contemporary: a momentum that pervades until you feel exhausted, even sick. In this way, it struck me as quite different to the meandering nature of the crime-films mentioned above. Instead, it is much more like the Safdie brothers’ recent efforts of Good Time (2017) and Uncut Gems (2019) – visually up-close, narratively intense, all-round draining, even if fittingly less vibrant in its British setting. This contemporary feeling of unstoppable momentum combined with traditional topics like family is key to the strange ‘nowness’ of Durkin’s film.
The cultural critic Mark Fisher has argued that the ‘21st century is marked by . . . anachronism and inertia . . . But this stasis has been buried, interred behind a superficial frenzy of ‘newness’, of perpetual movement.’ I really can’t think of better lines to sum up The Nest: the film’s subject and setting are anachronistic, we have certainly been there and done that, yet both are dressed up in complete frenzy. The Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw draws on this sensation, and more explicit supernaturality when he suggests the film could be read as a ‘ghost story’. Certainly, it appears the Thatcherite spectre is alive and kicking in contemporary Britain.
Grimley, Matthew, ‘Thatcherism, morality and religion’, in Jackson, Ben, and Saunders, Robert, (ed.) Making Thatcher’s Britain (2012)
Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, Florence, ‘Neoliberalism and Morality in the Making of Thatcherite Social Policy’, The Historical Journal (2012)
Chibnall, Steve, and Murphy, Robert, (ed.) British Crime Cinema (1999)
Fisher, Mark, ‘The Slow Cancellation of the Future’, in his Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (2014)
Bradshaw, Peter, ‘The Nest – Jude Law flies home in a riveting neoliberal fever dream’, The Guardian (2021)
Isaac is a third-year historian at Merton. While possibly surprising many Oxford history students by considering “Approaches” and “Disciplines” the best modules, it reflects the two questions he finds himself asking over and over: what is possible to know about the past and why would we want to know it?