Nell (1994): Starring Jodie Foster

Jodie Foster is such a fine actress that it’s always a pleasure to watch her work. Bright and alert, Foster has also been active in directing (Little Man Tate) and in producing films for her company, Egg Pictures.

Her new movie, Nell, co-written by William Nicholson (Shadowlands) and Mark Handley, is based on Handley’s play, Idioglossia. Somber and ponderous, it’s a clinical-psychological study of a wild woman (played by Foster), raised in the North Carolina backwoods, far from the interference–and according to the movie, contamination–of Civilization.

As directed by Michael Apted, Nell presents a familiar thesis that we have seen before in Francois Truffaut’s landmark l969 Wild Child. The picture is well-acted and beautifully produced, with breathtaking cinematography by Dante Spinotti. However, once the story gets going, it becomes too schematic and predictable.

The kind of film that can easily be mistaken as “serious” and “important,” Nell has nothing new to say about the dilemma between biological instincts and societal norms that Sigmund Freud analyzed in his seminal book, Civilization and Its Discontents.

As the tale begins, Nell is seen alone, in a remote lakeside cabin in the Smoky Mountains. The only companion she had, her mother, has just died of a massive stroke. Nell’s distorted language seems to be patterned after her mother’s own limited speech, induced by the stroke.

Miraculously, she is found by Jerome Lovell (Liam Neeson), a sensitive, handsome doctor, who sets a tent next to her cabin and begins to observe her systematically, first secretly, then out in the open. Jerome is fascinated by Nell, though the movie is careful enough to dismiss any notion of sexual attraction between the doctor and his patient.

Gradually, a trusting relationship evolves between Nell and the dedicated doctor, but the medical establishment at Charlotte University interferes, demanding to hospitalize Nell for observation. Another, more restrictive and formal psychologist, Paula Olsen (Natasha Richardson), is sent to the field, where she begins her own study of Nell through video monitoring.

At first, the two psychologists, who represent different philosophies of treatment, argue about the proper method to handle Nell, but then, predictably, they join forces, realizing that collaboration will yield better results than competition.

In Truffaut’s Wild Child (based on a true case of a boy in the early nineteenth century), we experienced the doctor’s as well as the child’s painful dilemmas. We understood that this “primitive” creature would never be happy, as he’ll never totally belong. Truffaut also conveyed effectively the doctor’s inevitable sadness and guilt after removing the child from Nature.

There are no such dilemmas in Nell, a didactic film that lacks subt*lety and sophistication. In fact, at the end, the picture resorts to a preposterous court hearing, in which Nell takes the floor and speaks in her own defense. The whole debate of unrestrained life in nature, based on free expression of instincts and drives, and the impositions that civilized society represents is reduced to a schematic clash of forces.

It’s hard to describe Jodie Foster’s performance, most of which consists of ecstatic, rather strange movements, which she often does in the nude. A good deal of the movie is set at night in the lakeside and Spinotti’s luminous lighting presents the actress in a glamorized manner. Foster has never looked more beautiful but, as written, the role denies her any range of emotions and feelings.

Liam Neeson, who continues to impress with every picture he makes, acquits himself better as the compassionate doctor. Neeson gives Nell, a picture that lacks much drama and is often quite tedious, a most needed center and gravity.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Actress: Jodie Foster

Oscar Context:

The winner was Jessica Lange for Blue Sky.