She is luminous in the title role of this beautifully filmed story of a child of the wild slipping into civilization; but the movie cannot recover after its premise is undermined by production errors.

NELL

A Illusion review by Joan Ellis.


"Nell" is a noble failure. The very talented Jody Foster has chosen repeatedly and commendably to swim against the popular tide by making films about women dealing with serious issues. She is luminous in the title role of this beautifully filmed story of a child of the wild slipping into civilization; but the movie cannot recover after its premise is undermined by production errors.

The story depends entirely on the credibility of a child of the wild growing up untouched by the reach of civilization. Raised by a mother who had suffered a stroke, Nell speaks in the moaning tones of her stricken mother, who spoke the only words Nell had ever heard.

The credibility problem sets in when we realize that a boy has been making regular grocery deliveries to the cabin on his dirt bike. His chore seems more of a pleasant outing than a trek into the wilderness. As visitors begin to come and go, the cabin where Nell lives with her mother takes on the feel of a summer camp on the outskirts of town. The nearby city is just too nearby, and our belief in Nell's isolation erodes, never to recover.

After her mother dies, Nell is discovered by a gentle doctor, Jerome Lovell (Liam Neeson). Lovell idealizes her surroundings and fears the unknown of bringing her into the real world. He teams up with Dr. Paula Olsen (Natasha Richardson), who wants to bring her in. As the medical establishment prods them to bring her to the hospital, Olsen and Lovell vow to protect Nell from the media and medical circus that will inevitably materialize when she is discovered.

The film is further damaged when it cuts back and forth between country and city so often that the language juxtaposition becomes silly. Nell speaks in the unintelligible moans of her aphasic mother, giving the story the feel of a foreign language film without subtitles. Dr. Lovell comes forth with somebody's version of contemporary hip: "Is this for real? Wow!" He tends to phrases like "What's up?" while Nell is dancing from rock to rock in ethereal nakedness.

This silliness diminishes the real power Jody Foster brings to Nell's mourning of her twin sister, who had drowned when she was very young. Foster creates a wrenching depth of feeling whenever Nell is thinking about her sister, which is most of the time. She makes us feel the desolate loneliness of Nell's loss of the only person she ever had. Whether playing on the rocks, as they had done so often, or seeing a little girl who is unbearably like her sister, Nell's pain passes right through the audience.

Liam Neeson is especially good as the gentle doctor, and Natasha Richardson comes through for director Michael Apted, but it is Jody Foster's movie, for better or worse. It is alive with her intelligence and insight, but crippled by major flaws. Apparently no one on this production understood the wilderness.


Film Critic: JOAN ELLIS
Word Count: 496
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Rating: PG-13 1h43m


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