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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Nell’: From, but Not of, This World : Jodie Foster Delivers a Strong Performance as a Woman Untouched by Modern Society

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Deep in rural North Carolina, in a secluded cabin hidden away in an especially remote corner of the Great Smoky Mountains, a singular young woman is discovered, someone who has lived her entire life without making contact with the forces of society.

Uneasy around other people, speaking a unique language, this person inhabits a universe all her own. So the quandary for her discoverers becomes how best to integrate those special qualities with what the workaday world has to offer.

Aside from being the plot line of “Nell,” this setup also summarizes the predicament the film’s creators were presented with. Challenged by a remarkable performance by Jodie Foster in the title role, they were unable to construct anything that did justice to it, making the actress and her fine work seem as out of place in this movie as Nell and her naive doings are back in civilization.

Though “Nell” is a work of fiction, adapted from a play called “Idioglossia” by Mark Handley, the sudden appearance of people who have lived without human society is historically accurate. In fact, two previous films on the subject, Francois Truffaut’s “The Wild Child” and Werner Herzog’s “The Mystery of Kasper Hauser,” were based on real situations.

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Both of those films starred unknowns in the uncivilized role, and it is not difficult to understand why. The qualities that make a star a star--a familiar voice, face, acting style--are very difficult to efface, yet effacement is necessary if audiences are to be convinced that they are watching a renegade human being, not an actor playing a kooky part.

The barriers to this happening are so great that even a performer of Foster’s abilities is not immediately convincing. But she works hard at making Nell come alive, using a keening vocal timbre, a gift for speaking the character’s language as if it meant something, and a willingness to tap the kind of inner fury she has not shown much before. By the time “Nell” is over, Foster’s passionate performance will make almost everyone believe.

The first person to discover Nell is Dr. Jerome Lovell (Liam Neeson), called to her cabin because of the death of Nell’s mother, a hermit of some notoriety in the nearby town of Robbinsville. A hunky free spirit who dislikes making plans, Dr. Lovell is delighted by Nell’s rural surroundings but uncertain about what should be done with this young woman who is a stranger to standard English.

Enter Dr. Paula Olsen (Natasha Richardson), an all-business scientist whose specialty is disturbed children. She has not the smallest doubt about what to do with Nell: take her out of the woods, lock her in a lab and place her under supervised clinical observation for the rest of recorded time.

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Dr. Lovell, a fiend for fresh air, disagrees and goes to court, convincing a judge that until more is known about Nell and what she wants, the young woman stays where she is. Which means that both doctors end up camping out at Nell’s doorstep, observing her, trying to learn her language, and, in whatever time is left over, having philosophical debates about her future.

The issues Lovell and Olsen thrash over--questions about whether it is healthy to live an entire life completely alone or how someone like Nell might handle the commotion her inevitable fame would bring--ought to be interesting ones, but they and the entire movie are hampered by several defects.

For one thing, unlike the medical controversy in, say, “Lorenzo’s Oil,” these two doctors are not having a fair fight. In today’s pervasive anti-science, anti-cities environment, all it takes is one vision of natural Nell dancing alone in the luminous moonlight and one glance at Dr. Olsen’s officious supervisor (Richard Libertini) to figure out which way this movie has stacked the deck.

Making matters worse is the clunky, awkward dialogue playwright Handley and fellow screenwriter William Nicholson have come up with, language that makes it difficult to view the doctors as real people despite the presence of fine actors like Neeson and Richardson in the roles. Either excessively theatrical or too on-the-nose (a problem it shares with Nicholson’s previous “Shadowlands”), the words here make one realize how lucky Nell is to have a language of her own.

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And though Michael Apted has been dealt a hand rife with artificial crises, he has not helped things much with his unconvincing direction. Too much that might have been genuinely thought-provoking in this film has been sacrificed to enhance audience tearfulness, and that is unfortunate.

Finally, however, the strength of Foster’s spooky performance makes “Nell” more effective and worthwhile than it otherwise deserves to be. And it is just because we come to care about that unusual young woman that we wish she were in a better movie, but that was not to be.

* MPAA rating: PG-13 for nudity. Times guidelines: The nudity is of the wholly innocent variety.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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‘Nell’

Jodie Foster: Nell Liam Neeson: Jerome Lovell Natasha Richardson: Paula Olsen Richard Libertini: Alexander Paley Nick Searcy: Todd Peterson Robin Mullins: Mary Peterson Jeremy Davis: Billy Fisher An Egg Pictures production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Michael Apted. Producers Renee Missel, Jodie Foster. Screenplay William Nicholson and Mark Handley, based on the play “Idioglossia” by Mark Handley. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti. Editor Jim Clark. Costumes Susan Lyall. Music Mark Isham. Production design Jon Hutman. Art director Tim Galvin. Set decorator Samara Hutman. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.


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