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‘Nell’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 25, 1994

An idyllic cove cloistered by North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains is the setting of "Nell," which was first performed onstage as playwright Mark Handley's "Idioglossia." When freed from the boards, this tale, adapted for the screen by Handley and William Nicholson, becomes primarily a paean to nature. To a lesser degree, it also a linguistic riddle, a ghost story and finally, a rather pedestrian romance.

Jodie Foster, transcendent in the bravura title role, is far grander than the film itself, and her performance helps camouflage the weaknesses of its structure and the naivete of its themes. There's also Dante Spinotti's ravishing cinematography to fill in any lapses with rose-colored morning mountains and a silvered moonlit lake.

When a country doctor is sent to deal with a decaying corpse in a remote cabin, he discovers Nell, a sylphlike young woman who speaks no known tongue. At night, she worships the beauty that surrounds her by taking moonlit baths. Nude, of course. By day, she cowers inside, where she is found by Dr. Lovell (Liam Neeson).

When word of her discovery leaks out, the "wild woman" becomes the object of a rivalry between Lovell and Dr. Olsen (Natasha Richardson), a psychologist at an urban hospital that sues for custody. Lovell challenges the hospital's claim in court and is granted three months to gather data about Nell's state of mind.

He sets up his tent near Nell's cabin and is beginning to gain her trust when Dr. Olsen arrives to begin observations of her own. Together they decipher Nell's language—which consists of such words as "eviduh," "chickapay" and "ta"—and reconstruct her tragic life. In time, they must decide whether Nell is competent or if she needs hospitalization.

Of course, Nell is saner than either of the two doctors, whom she has come to see as her parents. And while they have been studying her, she has been studying them on a more intuitive level. A healer in her own right, Nell eases the doctors' psychic pain.

The three are as contented as a sitcom family when they are obliged to leave the cove and return to so-called civilization—a small town populated by inbred rednecks, and later a sterile mental hospital in Charlotte, where the orderlies haven't progressed much beyond butterfly nets. At this point, the movie becomes labored and melodramatic with occasional detours into sentimentalism and sap.

Michael Apted, who directed Sigourney Weaver in "Gorillas in the Mist" and Sissy Spacek "Coal Miner's Daughter," certainly knows how to showcase the talents of his leading ladies. And if the rumor that Foster took the role to land a third Oscar is true, she's signed on the right director. Spacek won an Academy Award for "Daughter" in 1980, and Weaver was edged out for "Gorillas" in 1988 by Foster herself, who won for "The Accused."

"Nell" is rated PG for nudity of a nonsexual nature.

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