Knowing Nell

Nell says these lines, in her dialect, when she sees Lovell naked. (It's not the first thing she says. The trio is on the lake at night, and Olsen and Lovell have decided that Nell should see a man naked to recover from what her mother taught of her of "evil doers" and "skewer in the belly." Before really looking at Lovell's body, she swims over to Olsen for reassurance.)

In this story of emotions, and our efforts to express them, Foster's character, talking the language of herself, is heartbreakingly articulate. Because we can see, in fantasy sequences, Nell's inner life, we suffer too as Lovell and Olsen continue to misinterpret the woman's words and gestures. Each of the three central characters wants desperately to be understood, and each is isolated in one manner or another.

In the early moments of the story, Nell's mountain home and the freeways of Charlotte seem lifetimes apart. As the film progresses, Nell subtly, almost imperceptibly shifts, until we are delicately balanced between Nell's world and modernity, and the strength and weaknesses of both realms are revealed. As in his Coal Miner's Daughter, director Apted makes an unfamiliar world's strangeness not only appealing but also welcoming. And in this fantasy, the simple events are magical. Nell is a clear-hearted look at the nature of language, and how it makes us not alone.

Directed by Michael Apted. With Jodie Foster, Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson.

Rated PG-13.

110 minutes.

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