Nell (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Nell, Jodie Foster's return to dramatic acting following a flirtation with Maverick's action-comedy, is an entirely human movie. In this lush, green world of rolling hills and crystal pools, technology is an unwelcome intruder; civilization, a threatening monster. Both are slaves to the avaricious. Nell is about the importance of communication and interaction, about how the events of childhood shape a life, and about the difficulty -- and rewards -- of reaching out to others.

Nell (Foster) has lived her entire life alone in the woods with an aging mother. She is eventually discovered by a local doctor, Jerome Lovell (Liam Neeson), who comes to her secluded, ramshackle hut after her mother's death. Nell's panicked and hostile response to strangers forces Jerome to travel to nearby Charlotte to recruit the expert assistance of Dr. Paula Olsen (Natasha Richardson). After meeting the young woman, Paula's impression is that Nell should be committed. Jerome, horrified by this possibility, obtains a court order to stop it. The two opposing sides eventually argue the case before a judge. Deferring his verdict for three months, the judge gives the two doctors that time to observe their subject, learn her language, and present him with enough evidence to make an informed decision.

Jodie Foster's two Oscars are no fluke, as her simple-yet-profound performance in Nell illustrates. She is one of only a few actors capable of so fully immersing herself in a character that it's possible to forget the star behind the performance. With Jack Nicholson or Al Pacino, you watch a variation of the same personality; with Jodie Foster, you see a new individual.

Nell is an almost-childlike woman who speaks her own fractured form of English, hides inside her house by day, and takes moonlight swims in a nearby lake. In Jerome and Paula, she finds a substitute father and mother, and together, these three attempt to breach the non-physical walls between them. This, the real meat of Nell, is where the film attains its depth and richness.

At times, director Michael Apted, perhaps best known for his documentaries (the Up Series, Incident at Oglala), seems as enamored with the scenery as with his actors. The North Carolina terrain is breathtaking, and Apted, along with cinematographer Dante Spinotti, has created one of the most beautiful motion pictures of the year. It's a wonderful background for this tale.

Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson are solid, but constantly in Foster's shadow. In a film as frequently introspective as Nell, it's refreshing not to have the three main actors struggling to outdo each other. The gentle, unforced tone, once established, is maintained -- until the unfortunate climax.

Sadly, Scent of a Woman disease has infected Nell. Perhaps the writers couldn't think of a better way out of an admittedly-difficult situation, but to pander to the "Hollywood mentality" of movie endings is an unworthy way to wrap up an otherwise a finely-crafted motion picture. Had the majority of Nell not been so impressive, the lackluster final act wouldn't have been as disappointing.

Despite this moderate tarnish, it is difficult to deny Nell's intelligence and sensitivity. We approach this story with the same fascination that Nell faces each day, seeing, if only for a short time, how different the world -- and people -- can be. It is this impression more than any other that stays with the viewer after the drama has been played out and the final credits roll.

Nell (United States, 1994)

Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 1994-12-14
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Nudity, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1