Nell

1994, Movie, PG-13, 112 mins

Review

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NELL showcases an outstanding performance by Jodie Foster in the title role of a "wild" woman who speaks her own mysterious language. The film is beautifully made and thought-provoking, but vacillates too much between the sentimental and the metaphysical.

Country doctor Jerry Lovell (Liam Neeson) finds Nell (Jodie Foster) living in an isolated cabin in the North Carolina woods. Almost 30 years old, Nell has presumably never had contact with any person except her late mother, and speaks a unique, incomprehensible language. Lovell seeks the assistance of research psychologist Dr. Paula Olsen (Natasha Richardson), who immediately wants to commit the feral woman to a psychiatric hospital for study. Lovell objects to taking any action against Nell's express wish, and a court order gives him three months to discover what that might be. The doctors move out to the woods and set about deciphering Nell's language. From a safe distance, Olsen observes her subject with video cameras and collects data. Lovell addresses Nell directly and attempts to engage her personally. Weeks pass, and while the two doctors bicker over each other's methods--belying their mutual attraction--they both come to admire Nell. Prim Olsen envies her natural freedom. Lovell believes that Nell does not know loneliness.

Eventually, Olsen and Lovell realize that Nell is actually speaking English--just very, very badly. "Ga'inja" is guardian angel; "ta-ay" is tree; some invented words--e.g., "chickabay"--are thrown in as well. (We eventually learn that Nell's mother was partially paralyzed and passed on her distorted speech patterns to Nell; other curious features of "Nellish" grew out of a secret language Nell shared with a twin sister who died as a child.) Communication connects them, and the three form a sort of family. The "parents" introduce "their child" to popcorn, Patsy Cline, and the concept of sex. When a reporter comes snooping around, the doctors decide that Nell should discover the world before it comes bounding in on her, so they dress her up and take her to the grocery store. When the media arrive at the cabin in droves, Olsen whisks Nell to the hospital for safety. But in the unfamiliar and threatening surroundings, she becomes withdrawn, almost catatonic. At her competency hearing, things look bad for Nell until she stands up and speaks for herself (her impenetrable dialect is "translated" for the court by Lovell). She says she has seen our big world, and wishes to be left alone to live in her little world. Five years later, the doctors and their young daughter join Nell and some friends for a birthday picnic at the cabin.

A glossy response to Truffaut's THE WILD CHILD, NELL quickly dispenses with any philosophical questions about language and how its use constructs human beings as "civilized." It doesn't bother to suggest, as Truffaut's film does, that there might be compelling reasons to embrace civilization, despite the obvious allure of an untrammeled "natural" life. Indeed, NELL's approach to the classic argument between Nature and Civilization is rigged from the outset, and no one will be surprised to learn that Nature wins. Nell is the noblest of savages in the best of all possible woods; indeed, she's virtually a transcendent being. Conceived at a church by an unknown father, constantly performing ritual baptisms, and beatified by every light source, the messianic Nell doesn't heal the lame, but her mere gaze soothes psychological wounds. Nell's separation from "humanity" has been her salvation, and it's her unique self-possession that allows her to love altruistically.

It's only after they begin to speak Nell's language that Lovell and Olsen are able truly to love. However, the very artificiality of that coupling is one of the film's weaknesses. Lovell has no obvious motivation to dismiss even the possibility of attraction to Nell--she looks pretty good taking those moonlight swims in the nude--but the film coyly sidesteps a potentially messy issue, and attempts to re-channel its sexual energy into the safer relationship between the doctors. (Unfortunately, real-life spouses Neeson and Richardson display little on-screen chemistry, largely because Richardson is pushed into the background whenever Foster is on.) But doesn't Nell have sexual feelings? Or is the film positing sexual desire as a purely social construction? Or is the divine Miss N. just beyond such concerns? The film's most powerful scene occurs after the hackneyed grocery store sequence, when Foster wanders into a pool hall and begins innocently to strip at the behest of its leering patrons--but the moment derives its power not from the text of NELL, but from its unavoidable connection with Foster's role in THE ACCUSED. Had NELL dealt more forthrightly with some of the issues of sex (and sexual violence) that it raises, it would have been a better film.

Foster's performance, however, could not be improved upon. Her mastery of an invented language, combined with near-balletic body movement and a remarkably intelligent deconstruction of communicative gestures and facial codes, is an achievement that justifies her consensual status as America's best young dramatic actress. NELL, the first film from Foster's own Egg production company, reflects her peculiar position in Hollywood. As missteps like SOMMERSBY and MAVERICK show, she remains a casting enigma to the powers that be, and the actress-director-producer will need to rely on her own devices to develop projects worthy of her talent. (Adult situations, nudity.) leave a comment

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