The Nest

* * * * 1/2

Sean Durkin’s The Nest is the first great movie of 2021. A relationship drama anchored by incredible performances from Carrie Coon and Jude Law, it left me devastated, wrecked, and thoroughly sated. It puts you (and its characters) through the ringer; once the credits roll, a tight hundred and seven minutes after the evocative first shot, you’ve been through something. You’ve been through a lot.

That first shot is precise and revealing. It’s a slow zoom out from the window of a house. Combined with the ominous score and even the font of the title card, Durkin is using the cinematic language of horror, and specifically 70s horror. The cinematography has a grainy texture to it – it looks like film – and the mood is malevolent.

As it turns out, we’re in the 80s, although that is revealed gradually, and not, strictly, in a horror film. But Durkin returns to that zoom five or six times, almost always framing a window or house, and his intentions are very clear. Horror can reside in the house, and our own family can be the cause of our greatest pain.

Coon and Law play a married couple, with two kids, who move from a comfortable-seeming house somewhere in the US to a huge, rambling, spooky-yet-beautiful manor house in Surry, outside of London. Law’s character Rory is returning to his roots and to working with an old colleague (the awesome Michael Culkin) at his City trading firm; Coon’s Allison works with horses, and the intention is for her to set up her own professional stables on the grounds. It is a move prompted by Rory’s hyperactive ambition, and it will be the family’s curse.

I was in total, seat-gripping suspense for pretty much the whole third act of this superbly crafted film. It all gels: a perfect screenplay, incredibly evocative cinematography (the dull grey British afternoon skies evoke such a precise feeling), the period design, the sublime acting, and that superbly forbidding score (by Richard Reed Parry). Durkin showed huge promise with his debut feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene, back in 2011; that he now offers his second, a quiet masterpiece, in 2021, shows the value of taking your time and doing things right.

The Young Pope and The New Pope

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Beauty is clearly in the eye of the beholder, but there would be a case to be made that The Young Pope is the most beautiful season of television ever made. It was created – and, vitally, every one of its ten episodes was directed – by Paolo Sorrentino, who is recognised worldwide as one of the great visual stylists, whose trademark style is beauty, and whose breakthrough, Oscar-winning film is called The Great Beauty. That film takes place in Rome, widely acknowledged as one of the most beautiful cities in the world; The Young Pope is set in the Vatican, which is in Rome, and shot in Venice, which, need I say, is widely considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Take all this and add an HBO budget – you know, Game of Thrones / Succession level budget – and there’s your case: The Young Pope is possibly the most beautiful season of television ever made.

That’s important, because its beauty helps keep you going when the plot gets you down. It’s not that Paolo can’t tell a linear story efficiently, it’s that he doesn’t care to: if you’ve seen any of his movies you’ll know what I mean, and he brought the same disregard for traditional plotting, and the same emphases instead on visual style, intense wit, multitudinous references, and deep character examination, to The Young Pope.

That was 2016 / 2017. Now, rather than a second season of The Young Pope, he gives us The New Pope, which will make sense once you watch Season One. Should you? Unabashedly yes, if you’re down for what I’ve already put forward and more: astonishing, ravishing beauty (including that of Jude Law, who plays The Young Pope), wit, deep intellectual curiosity, uncanny political relevance (much of The Young Pope predicts Trump’s chaotic reign and the intense turmoil it causes) and extremely deep levels of conflicted, confusing, contradictory characterisation. Just don’t come expecting a simple story cleanly told. That’s not Paolo’s style, nor his Young Pope’s.

The New Pope has been fast-tracked and is now screening on SBS On Demand in tandem with its episode-by-episode release on HBO. All episode of The Young Pope are available.

SPY

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** (out of five)

Even Rose Byrne, who has consistently been scoring the most comic goals in supporting roles in American studio comedies over the last few years, is left high and comedically dry by the script and direction of Spy, a generally unfunny, very expensive misfire that is often embarrassing to watch. Byrne manages to achieve a final moment of dignity in her last shot in the film with a subtle piece of physical comedy, but her co-star (and the star of the film) Melissa McCarthy has no such luck; her performance – and ninety-five percent of the movie – is laugh-free.

McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, the desk-bound earworm for Bond-like CIA agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). As he roams a generic gorgeous villa amongst generic baddies, she, in Virginia, directs his movements through an earpiece. She’s madly in love with him, of course, or at least in awe-love. When something happens to him, and she’s called to follow up by being deployed in the field, her actual abilities are put to the test.

Or something like that. The plot is obviously just a hanger on which to drape jokes, if there were any. That’s not fair – there are plenty of jokes, but they’re almost all stale, in bad taste, or simply not funny (usually all three). What should be comic gold – especially Jason Statham taking the piss out of his own image – is tragically, toe-curlingly flat, all due to the script. Statham has a monologue that outlines the many ways his character, über-tough spy Rick Ford, has cheated death; it should’ve been brilliant, but it feels like the “vomit draft”, the splurge of words used to denote a paragraph of a screenplay that is meant to be polished later. Nothing seems to have been polished here at all.

McCarthy remains an enigma to me, and not a good one. If she’s the funniest thing in movies at the moment, I’m missing the joke. Her persona – that of a sad sack, jealous of the beautiful people around her and depressed at not being one – is not funny, and here it takes place of character, which really confuses the movie, for Cooper is meant to be a fierce and highly skilled fighter. There is no consistency or through-line. One moment she’s kicking ass, the next she’s screaming “I shat my pants” as a way to stealthily follow her mark.

Twice-Emmied Bobby Cannavale cranks up the ham to play a third-act villain. He and Byrne are an item, and so far they’ve got the recent version of Annie, and this, under their belts as a couple in the same film. Separately, they’re often brilliant, and in good projects. Just sayin’.

Allison Janney is wasted in a role that should have been hysterical. It’s a crime to get Janney, a brilliant comedian, and give her crap to work with. Playing a CIA boss, there was endless opportunity to riff on her hard-edged persona accumulated through The West Wing and myriad other turns. Instead, she’s been given expositional, generic text, mainly glued into a drab chair. The wastefulness of her brilliance is emblematic of this bloated movie. So many good resources were involved, and so little of value appears on screen.

With some big-budget comedies that don’t work, it is often reported that at least the actors appear to have been having a good time, but one can’t say that here. Everyone looks strained, confused or downright desperate; I imagine some of these talented performers wishing they could finesse their lines but unable to since “We’ve only got the Vi Del Corso for two more hours!” Only Miranda Hart, from Call The Midwife, comes out alive, playing Cooper’s colleague and ally Nancy. She spends about half of her performance on the phone, and I imagine she was given the opportunity to just riff. Thank goodness. She’s in a completely different movie, but at least it’s a funny one.