(My choice again, as this was a modest critical fave and got a few Oscar nods.)
In the 70s, Jodie Foster was a pre-teen wonderkund, making a name for herself with a couple of Scorcese classics and a Disney fan-fave. But the 80s were not he her decade; Hollywood din’t quite know what to do with her puckish charm and razor-sharp intellect. All that changed with The Accused and her subsequent Oscar win for Best Actress, and all that really changed with her-follow up, a little-known thriller named The Silence of the Lambs, and yet another Oscar win for it. By the mid-90s she was in the driver’s seat, and could pretty much pick whatever she wanted to peruse.
And so one project she opted for was an adaption of the play Idioglossia, producing it with her newly founded company, Egg Pictures. She placed herself in the lead role of Nell (also the film’s title), an illiterate backwoods woman who can communicate with a language known only to herself. Clearly Foster had an affinity with this character and this topic matter – it’s evident in her devotion to the role – and she was rewarded with another Oscar nomination, although no win. And the movie itself has much going for it; it entertains some pretty heady ideas about basic human rights and the “what’s best for…” argument, particularly where it pertains to those with special needs and uncivilized. But while Nell is hard not to like, it’s also hard to too get too excited about it. The material here feels just a bit thin to sustain a feature-length release.
Liam Neeson plays Jerry Lovell, a country doctor who discovers Nell, left alone after the sudden death of her elderly mother, in a remote North Carolina shack. Kicking and screaming at the first sight of a stranger, she appears to speak a language of gibberish, but Lovell is determined to “tame” her enough to be able to help her. He enlists the help of Dr. Paula Olsen (Natasha Richardson), an autism specialist, but when she arrives with a court order to institutionalize her, he responds with a court order of his own to prevent it. The judge withholds a verdict for three months, long enough for both doctors to study Nell and learn her language so he can render a more informed decision.
Lovell and Olsen move out to the woods (she in a nice boat on the river) to study the “wild child,” and, through the use of monitoring devices, observation and sheer patience, begin to realize that Nell’s language isn’t that far removed from English – it actually turns out to be a very distorted dialect learned from her mother, who had suffered a severe speech-affecting stroke. Lovell, in particular, develops a rapport with Nell – after he realizes that Nell’s fear of men stems from her witnessing her other’s rape, he resolves to use her gender as a way of neutralizing that phobia. All goes well with the study (with both doctors seeming to develop romantic feelings for one another), until the outside world steps in; local boys learn about Nell and taunt and sexually harass her, followed by inevitable media coverage. Nell is brought to a psychiatric hospital with disastrous results, and her court appearance doesn’t look so good either. But Nell rises to the occasion with an unexpected attempt to speak – enough, evidently, for a judge to allow her independence, and in an epilogue five years later, she enjoys a reunion with the doctors, now married to each other, along with an extended family of locals. And she appears to speak better English too.
Nell has a lot of nice tings going. Planted in the luscious mountains of North Carolina (and filmed there too), the story makes use of its misty vistas – you can almost feel like you’re there too. The “bad guys” in the film – the psychologists who want to study Nell (we all know how that goes) – are depicted without too much caricature. Clearly the Olsen character, who becomes Lovell’s love interest, must be somewhere in the middle, and I admired her underplayed ambivalence. Only at the end does she truly demonstrate feelings toward her colleague, and even then it’s more a matter of professional course. Not every movie has to have a sun-drenched love scene halfway through.
And I liked the Lovell character a great deal – he, after all, affords the film its main theme about how civility keeps us from feeling free and truly alive, cognizant of what really matters. (A recurring picture of Nell standing on a river log, arms outstretched toward the heavens, is its representative image.) Neeson ably makes the character work, along with its dynamicism. His change is not quite as obvious as Olsen’s, but it’s there. And he even manages to rescue some scenes that could easily have been completely laughable, such as the moment when he needs to show Nell his penis so she’ll be less fearful of the “weapon” used against he mother. Or the scene where he and Olsen sweet-talk each other using Nell’s gobbledygook, the premise being that her tongue is more emotionally connective.
But Nell has some flaws too, director Michael Apted takes a leisurely pace in telling his tale, even when parts of the film require a stronger momentum (like the buildup to the court case and the threat by outside interlopers). As a matter of fact, the whole thing could benefit from being more tightly wound, and even featuring a bit more backstory for Lovel and Olson – why does he yearn for that freedom of spirit that he see’s in Nell; why does she stick so rigidly to her pedantry?
There’s also a few loose ends. The local sheriff’s wife has some psychiatric issues of her own that are never made clear, and we’re led to believe that perhaps she’s Nell’s long-lost sister, but that’s never ascertained. And then there’s the ending, which pushes the disbelief that we’ve been heretofore willing to suspend. Just before the judge will likely remand her to a hospital, Nell suddenly rises to the occasion with an impassioned quasi-coherent speech about love and interconnectivity. And suddenly we dissolve to the five-years-later epilogue, in which we must assume she’s legally won her independence and can live back where she belongs. Apted robs us of that payoff, that doesn’t have to be overdramatic but it does have to be there.
By and large, Nell just feels too TV-movie, despite some occasional cinematic elements. I will remember these characters, but only as flattened representations of characteristics, not as fully fleshed-out people in their own right. And for a play adaption that is all about character, that is important. Still, it’s worthwhile for some of the ideas it entertains.