A cocoon of somber self-seriousness envelopes some fine performances and intelligent craftsmanship in “Nell.” The unusual but somewhat dramatically proscribed story of a young woman raised apart from civilization in the North Carolina backwoods, the picture seems too aware of its studied artfulness and sensitivity as it dramatizes the effort of two doctors to establish a connection with the outcast, who speaks her own language. Jump-started by prestige stars Jodie Foster and Liam Neeson, the Fox release should enjoy a certain success with audiences seeking serious fare.
Working in his anthropological “Gorillas in the Mist” mode, director Michael Apted moves deep into the Smoky Mountains to unfold the story of Nell (Foster), who at the outset is left alone in a remote lakeside cabin when her mother dies. As is soon explained, Nell speaks in a unique way due to her mother’s stroke-induced speech impediments.
Nell is fortunate in being found by an independent-minded doctor, Jerome Lovell (Neeson), who takes to observing her secretly when he realizes that she’s not the same around strangers. On her own, Nell is taken to almost ecstatic reveries of emotional swooning and impulsive movement, but becomes belligerent and babbles incomprehensibly when approached.
Naturally, the medical authorities at Charlotte University want to hospitalize this prize specimen for extended observation and treatment, but Lovell manages to win a stay of three months. But no sooner does he pitch a tent near Nell’s cabin than psychologist Paula Olsen (Natasha Richardson) turns up in a houseboat to do her own monitoring of Nell’s behavior.
Stemming their competitiveness, the two enter into a makeshift collaboration, with Lovell, the only person Nell trusts, interacting with her and trying to crack her language while Olsen tapes it all via remote video.
Although the delivery of the invented language has its own fascination, and becomes tantalizingly more understandable (and seemingly closer to normal English) as the story progresses, Foster’s performance relies in great measure upon techniques of movement, dance and mime.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in some of the film’s most haunting sequences, which have the two visitors spying on her while she cavorts nude in Isadora Duncan fashion on rocks and in the water under the moonlight (but Foster’s ultra-trim aerobicized body seems a bit unrealistic). Dante Spinotti’s precisely calibrated, silhouetted lensing plays a crucial role in making these scenes come off.
As the two doctors patiently strive to allay Nell’s fears of people, daylight and, ultimately, “the big bad world,” they also make tiny strides in breaking down the barriers to a possible connection between them. Lovell clearly has spent his life running away, first from his native land, then from big-city practice, and is placing all his chips on the prospect of succeeding at being Nell’s teacher and protector.
In fits of scarcely concealed jealous anger, Olsen accuses Lovell of having unnatural motives in his feelings for the emotionally needy Nell. She must relax her regimented, learned knowledge to accommodate thesingular challenges of dealing with Nell’s case.
Forced out of seclusion by prying media, the doctors must ultimately take Nell to town, where she becomes an inert zombie in the hospital. Infuriated, Lovell spirits her out, and it all ends in a somewhat improbable courtroom sequence designed to demonstrate the wisdom of innocence.
Part of the problem with stories of so-called primitive spirits being exposed to “civilization” is that the dramatic trajectory is almost unavoidably predictable: There is the wonder of discovering such a being at all, the excitement of finding a person in a raw state, followed by the inevitable sense of sadness and even tragedy as the individual is contaminated by the poison of society and its rules.
Invariably, the debate over “artificial” education vs. “natural” instinct rears its head in some form, with a prejudice toward the latter almost always prevailing.
“Nell” can’t avoid this, of course, but fortunately, the script by William Nicholson and Mark Handley, based on the latter’s play, generally sidesteps overly didactic melodrama. All the same, the film bogs down a bit in the late stages when resolution is required, when the sense of excitement and discovery is supplanted by a kind of resignation and release.
Foster’s Nell represents a one-of-a-kind change of pace for the actress, whose company produced the film, and she delivers with full credibility except for the courthouse climax. But the major weight of the film falls upon Neeson’s broad shoulders, and he carries it splendidly,moving the film along while juggling certainties and doubt, hope and apprehension. Richardson does as well as anyone could in a relatively functional, less well-written role. Outstanding among the film’s subtleties is a virtually unspoken connection between Nell and the local sheriff’s disturbed wife, nicely etched by Robin Mullins.
Apted’s naturalistic approach is insightful and awkward by turns, but a strong atmosphere comes through thanks to the striking mountain setting and Jon Hutman’s rustic production design.