To mock Nell would be neither difficult nor entirely unwarranted--what's bad in this movie is so irritatingly God-awful that you may want to scream. But what's good in it is good enough to make up for some of the sentiment and cheesy didacticism. Jodie Foster plays the title character, a young woman brought up by her reclusive mother in an isolated mountain cabin in North Carolina. Because of Nell's seclusion--her mother, a stroke victim with a severe speech impediment, is one of only two people she has ever had contact with--she speaks her very own English subtongue. In fact, the play on which this film is based, by Mark Handley, is named Idioglossia, a word meaning "individual tongue."
The story begins with the discovery of Nell's existence after her mother dies, and it takes the drearily worn path--a conflict between some sinister scientists who want to lock up Nell to study her, and a decent, kindly local sawbones (Liam Neeson) who wants her to live free.
This fellow moves into a tent outside Nell's cabin--for three months! Neat financial trick for a divorced, small-town doc. Slowly, he manages to get close to her, and to learn a little of her language, and in no time at all, Nell trusts him utterly, regarding him as her guardian angel. The rep of stinky modern science, Natasha Richardson, is parked nearby in a university-funded houseboat, watching Nell and the doc become daughter and father on closed-circuit TV. In no time at all--no huge emotional hurdle in this film takes any time at all--Richardson is providing the other point in the nuclear-family triangle.
It's a variation on Truffaut's The Wild Child, on Iceman, on Greystoke and some of the other Tarzan films, and on many, many other sources, among them, perhaps, the various versions of the Kaspar Hauser story. Nell's screenwriters (Handley and William Nicholson) dive straight for the least persuasive myth to have grown up around this sort of material--that being raised away from human society makes for spiritual purity. It never seems to occur to them that maybe Nell is such a sweet-souled creature not because she was raised in the woods, but simply because she had a loving parent. This sentimental approach to the wild-child theme fills Nell up with atrocious ideas. It's hard to say which stimulates louder groans--Nell's encounter with a pack of slavering pool-hall rednecks or her climactic courtroom speech, translated by Neeson, in which she wistfully comments on the spiritual poverty of the civilized world. Fortunately, though the concepts are far from fresh, Foster's performance is. Sure, the role is Oscar bait and ego trip--if Nell could convincingly have been 20 years older, Barbra Streisand might have wanted to play her. And, yes, Foster's work here consists largely of technical tricks. But she also shows more lightness and radiance than she has before, giving Nell physical grace and a deep, hearty giggle that is surprisingly infectious.
The dialogue is so banal that it undoes Neeson and Richardson, attractive and hardworking as they are. Nell's chatter, flawlessly convincing as performed by Foster, was the only sound of a human voice in the film to which I enjoyed listening. I began to wish that all of the dialogue was in Nellese so that I would be spared understanding it. The only other acting worth mentioning is that of Jeremy Davies, as the main redneck, and it's notable only for being so wretched that it besmirches his excellent work in Spanking the Monkey.
The director, the Brit Michael Apted, has often made films about unusual women--Gorillas in the Mist, Blink, Coal Miner's Daughter--and in the last example, he also showed his eye for rural American settings. Except for a few too many close-ups of Foster's face (understandable, considering that Foster co-executive-produced the picture), there's nothing wrong with his direction. The pacing never lags, and Dante Spinotti's lush cinematography always gives us something lovely to look at. As moviemaking, Nell is craftsmanlike, but as drama or philosophy, it's lukewarm mush.
Along with Foster, who found in it the perfect vehicle for a third Oscar, Nell will surely delight at least one other party--the manufacturer of Smartfood popcorn. Neeson, discovering that Nell's late mother deliberately planted in her daughter a terror of going out in the daytime (to protect her from rape), uses a bag of this snack to lure Nell out of doors at midday. The taste that conquers lifelong phobias--as product placement goes, that's a coup right up there with the Reese's Pieces Elliot left for
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