directed by Michael Apted
(20th Century Fox, 1994)
While Hollywood is filled with movie stars, it can boast of only a scant few bona fide actresses. Jodie Foster, the consummate professional, is the cream of that small crop, and I respect no other actor or actress on earth as much as I respect her. Nell is a testament to her unlimited talent as well as her unmatched commitment to what she does. The character of Nell is a role most actresses would never consider taking; it's a far too difficult challenge to meet for a film that holds little promise to bring in money hand over fist. For Foster, though, what matters is the story to be told, not the glamour or the projected box office receipts. She gives an absolutely amazing performance in this film, one that has deserved far more attention than it has received; as I write this, there is not even a DVD version of the film available. If Nell is mentioned at all, it is almost always in reference to Jodie's Foster nudity in the film, and I would like to say straight out that her nudity is very tastefully done, important if not absolutely necessary for the story, and in no way provocative.
Nell is a poignant, emotional drama that saddens as well as inspires you; it is the kind of tearjerker in which your tears of empathy and concern are accented by a smile and sense of heartwarming joy. The story is set deep in the wilderness of western North Carolina, where an old woman has lived for years all by herself. People always thought she lived alone, at least, until she died and the local doctor discovered a pitiful woman-child hiding inside the shack, the only home she had ever known. Nell's mother had suffered a stroke many years earlier and spoke with a pronounced speech impediment; as a result, Nell speaks a tongue that is almost completely foreign to both the local doctor and the psychiatric professional he calls in from Charlotte.
Dr. Lovell (Liam Neeson) becomes a guardian angel of sorts to Nell, fighting the courts and the mental health professionals to keep Nell in her native environment as opposed to being stuck in some institution where she will be treated as a lab subject. He gets three months to work with Nell himself, and his potential foe in the form of psychologist Paula Olsen (Natasha Richardson) becomes his ally in time, as they both work with Nell to learn her unique language and prepare her for a life completely unlike that which she has always known. In her own special way, Nell helps the two doctors as much as they help her, yet their ability to protect her from a dire future of lonely clinical existence remains in doubt up until the very end.
Neeson and Richardson are wonderful in their roles, but Foster is simply amazing. She had to learn a completely new, invented language as well as adopt a wide range of meaningful facial and body expressions and unique mannerisms in order to portray this "wild child" as a very real, very human individual. Nell is easily one of Foster's most impressive performances, and how she did not win an Oscar for this role is beyond me. It should also be noted that Foster produced as well as starred in this unforgettable film. The scenery, I might add in closing, is also spectacular. Filmed largely in the Nantahala National Forest in Graham County, N.C., a location just west of my own home, Nell is a beautiful sight to behold in more ways than one. Hollywood needs more powerful, moving films such as this.