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Nell is a girl who's been brought up in an isolated world. The only people she knew were her mother and twin sister. They lived together in a cottage in the forest. Nobody has ever met Nell. After her mother's death, she's discovered by the local doctor Jerome. He's fascinated by her, since she speaks a mangled language, developed by her sister and herself growing up, "twin speak" if you will. But Paula, a psychology student, wants her observed in a laboratory. The judge decides they get three months to observe her in the forest, after which he'll decide about Nell's future. Written by
Tony Kessen <email@example.com>
One of the finest and most powerful films of the Nineties
In the late 1970s two young girls named Virginia and Grace Kennedy caused great interest in the academic disciplines of psychology and linguistics. The girls, identical twin sisters, had developed a private language quite incomprehensible to outsiders. Even after they had learnt English, they continued to communicate with each other in their secret language, which was partly a mixture of distorted English and the German that was their grandmother's native tongue, but which also contained some inexplicable vocabulary items.
This was an example of an uncommon, but not unprecedented, phenomenon known as 'idioglossia' or 'cryptophasia'. 'Nell' tells the story of an even more extreme example of the same phenomenon. An eccentric and reclusive old woman named Violet Kellty is found dead in her home, a wooden cabin without electricity or running water in a remote mountain are of North Carolina. The local doctor, Jerry Lovell, visits the property to certify the death and discovers that, unknown to the community, Violet had a daughter, Nell, living with her. Nell is unable to speak English and can only speak an unknown language. Although in her late twenties, she has never been outside her home and the forests which surround it, and knows nothing of the outside world.
A psychiatrist, Paula Olsen, sent to investigate the case, decides that Nell is mentally retarded, but Lovell, who is becoming increasingly fascinated by this strange young woman, contests this diagnosis. The judge responsible for deciding Nell's future, decides that she should be kept under observation for three months so that more information can be obtained. Jerry and Paula move into the woods to observe, and gradually start to find out more about Nell's past. They learn that she had a twin sister, May, who died as a child, and that her seemingly-strange speech is actually a mixture of distorted English learnt from her mother (who had a speech defect as the result of a series of strokes) and words remembered from a private language spoken with her twin. The question they have to resolve is whether Nell should be committed to a mental institution or allowed to continue her life in the woods. In order to do so, they find that they need to learn how to communicate with her.
The most outstanding feature of the film is Jodie Foster's performance in the title role- a remarkable one even by the standards of this talented actress. Throughout the film Foster speaks only in Nell's unearthly-sounding private language, but is able to use this, together with gestures and facial expressions, to convey a full range of emotions. The nearest parallel is probably Marlee Matlin's equally remarkable performance in 'Children of a Lesser God', another film about difficulties in communication. What emerges most powerfully here is the traumatic nature of Nell's position- hitherto happy in her limited world, she is suddenly confronted with a range of people and situations she never knew existed. Foster certainly deserved her Oscar nomination; whether she deserved to win I cannot say, as I have never seen 'Blue Sky', the film for which Jessica Lange won the award.
At the heart of the film is a triangular relationship between Nell, Jerry and Paula. Paula initially leans towards the view that Nell belongs in an institution, and clashes with Jerry who takes the opposite view, but as the film progresses she comes to share his opinion and his concern for Nell. The two first become friends and then fall in love, brought together by Nell, who forms the third side of the triangle. One can say that there are also love-relationships between Nell and Jerry and Nell and Paula, but because these relationships are platonic rather than sexual in nature they serve to bring Jerry and Paula together rather than divide them. This means that Jerry and Paula play key roles in the film; fortunately, Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson both play their parts very well, although in a more understated manner than Foster.
Many of the criticisms which have been made of the film are, I believe, due to misconceptions. The film critic of The Guardian, for example, criticised it for being overly politically correct in its treatment of the 'mentally challenged'. Apart from the fact that that is an odd criticism to find in a newspaper which is one of the strongest bastions of political correctness in Britain, it is made quite clear in the film that Nell is neither mentally ill nor mentally handicapped. She merely speaks a different language (both literally and metaphorically) from the rest of the world. Some have taken exception to the brief scenes of nudity, but the purpose of these is not eroticism, but rather to demonstrate Nell's innocence.
Another criticism which I have seen made of this film, both on this board and elsewhere, is that it is pushing a trite or simplistic 'message', normally along the lines of 'nature is better than civilization' or 'ignorance is bliss'. In my opinion, this criticism is misconceived; 'Nell' is not a didactic film of that sort. Certainly, Nell herself has many admirable characteristics- gentleness, the ability to love and to be loved, a capacity for joy and a love of nature- but nowhere in the film is there any argument that one has to be ignorant or a feral child of nature in order to share these characteristics. If there are villains in the film they are not abstractions such as 'civilisation' or 'modern society', but rather those individuals who want to exploit Nell for their own ends- the journalist hungry for a scoop, the rowdy town youths who want to use her either for mockery or for sexual pleasure, and the academic Alexander Paley. Paley is keen to have Nell committed; he tries to justify this as objective concern for her welfare, but his motives are really self-seeking. He sees Nell as a first-class subject for research which will bring him kudos in the world of academia.
What gives the film its power is not any obvious 'message' but its deeply poetic and spiritual tone, deriving both from the acting of the three central characters and the exquisite photography of the North Carolina landscapes. It is a film from which different viewers will draw different conclusions- some may see it, for example, as a religious allegory about the redeeming power of love, while others may view it in a more literal way. It may be too quiet and poetic for some tastes, but in my view this is an unjustly neglected work, one of the finest and most powerful films of the nineties. 10/10
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