Nell (1994)

Nothing in the first hour of NELL effectively explains what's going on.
Sure, we're spoon fed the basics:  Appalachian doctor Jerome Lovell
(Liam Neeson) is called by the sheriff to a backwoods cabin, the home of
a recluse who was thought to have lived alone.  She was a stroke victim
who had very little contact with the outside world.  She also had a
daughter that no one knew about-- a young woman named Nell (Jodie
Foster) who has never known contact with strangers.

They call Nell a "wild child" and immediately consult a psychologist
(Natasha Richardson) in Charlotte.  She wants Nell in a hospital, Jerry
wants Nell to be left alone, and there you go.  What does *Nell* want?
Why is Jerry interested in her?  Why does Richardson talk like she had
Reba McEntire as a dialect coach?  The script never answers these

Based on a play by Mark Handey, Nell is built around a magnificent plot
device:  a child reared without any human contact other than her mother.
Said child was borne as the result of a rape and so Mom painted a very
cruel portrait of the outside world.  Mom also suffered multiple strokes
and her aphasia affected how the child was taught to speak.  (Mom's
accent didn't help much either, y'all.)

The scenes for such a story should write themselves.  Sheriff discovers
cabin.  Doctor discovers Nell.  Nell discovers civilization.
Civilization discovers Nell.  Those scenes exist, but they're pieced
together in a routine, ambiguous fashion that never explains much of
anything.  We get plenty of moonlit shots of Nell communing with nature,
for example.  She dances under the stars and goes swimming buck-naked.
It's a very showy performance from Foster that says very little.

Nell speaks through slow, swaying motions, appearing drunk in almost
every scene.  Why is she acting intoxicated?  Only in the last few
minutes does Nell reveal the mind that *we* know she's had all along.
We've seen her intelligent stares; we know she's smart.  The movie needs
*less* of her silly swaying and *more* of the characters who are paying
attention to her.

Director Michael Apted includes a number of images from inside Nell's
mind, which he overuses.  How about some scientific mumbo jumbo,
instead?  Here's a story *filled* with doctors and hospitals, yet no one
stops to give a frank explanation of why Nell is behaving in the manner
she is.

The film achieves satisfying closure, when Nell gives a courtroom speech
that lets her say all the things that she should've said before.  Of
course, if she had spoken too soon, she would've ruined the suspense.
Will the bad doctors study her like a specimen?  Will the good doctors
fall in love and protect her?  Duh, what do you think?  (Rated
"PG-13"/113 min.)

BOTTOM LINE:  Great idea for a stupid movie.

Grade: C-

Copyright 1994 by Michael J. Legeros

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