Knowing Nell

The central character in Michael Apted's new film Nell is introduced to the tune of her own, otherworldly, melodic keening. In the opening scenes, Nell (Jodie Foster) is a simply dressed mountain girl, tenderly laying out her dead mother. She has bathed her and dressed her, and is lacing up her patched black boots. This achingly beautiful tableau looks to be -- but isn't -- out of the last century. Indeed, Nell's world is dangerously close to ours.

She is, in fact, secluded in the woods outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, where she has grown up almost completely alone. Nell's mother, we're informed later, was known as a hermit, and kept her daughter isolated from the rest of the world -- from running water, from electricity and, apparently, from recognizable speech. It's soon clear that Nell speaks a language that is hers alone. Despite that, in Apted's engaging movie adaptation of the play Idioglossia, this innocent character will be asked to answer questions about humanity and society. Though the film shows Nell's cabin to be carefully, sparsely furnished with 18th-century goods, and her forest is lush and ancient, the point of Nell is not a playful tour of a fantasy world. The point of Nell is to examine what people have to say to each other, and why we always have such a hard time being understood.

Nell is introduced, in the movie's solemn first minutes, as competent and complete. She cooks, she sews, she chops wood, she practices her own twilight rituals. It's only when we see her in contrast to others that Nell and her world seem limited, or primitive.

That contrast comes when Jerome Lovell (Liam Neeson), the doctor sent out to collect the body of Nell's mother, sees the young woman nobody knew existed. He's fascinated by her apparent lack of speech, and the effect isolation has had on her, and takes Nell on as a special project. Suspecting that she may be autistic or suffering a similar disorder, he seeks the help of psychologist Paula Olsen (Natasha Richardson), who finds Nell equally fascinating.

The romantic doctor and the resolutely scientific psychologist both make the mistake of not taking Nell as she is; they're more concerned with how she fits into their own views. Their dismissal of Nell's individuality comes, as is often the case, from a mix of insecurities and hubris. Their projected fears and smug assumptions prevent them from understanding their subject until it's almost too late.

Lovell, we learn in unobtrusive asides, had a bad marriage and has retreated to the country in search of an imagined vision of a rural physician's bucolic life. Lovell sees Nell as Rousseau's noble savage and more: he sees her as pure creature who is "completely alone and needs no one." It's a fantasy that lasts long after he has seen her suffering for lost love, and greedy, and displaying any number of other petty, painful and fully human traits.

Olsen, the psychiatrist, finds Nell less complete; she thinks the orphan needs her protection, and that by protecting Nell she will prove herself strong. Olsen is very modern, and Southern and blond, and she also knows that "the Nell project" could help her make full professor. The secrets of this wild child could help answer the question of whether nature or nurture is more important; shed light on the origin of language; perhaps even unveil the meaning of consciousness. Nell is a scientific sensation, and overnight, Olsen has endless funding for her project and a hasty court order giving her custody of Nell.

The only problem is that Nell is an adult, and Lovell argues that her consent is required before any custody can be awarded. A judge agrees. Nell, he rules, must have a say in where she goes. And before she can have a say, she needs to be understood; she needs an interpreter.

That establishes the film's tension, as the judge also decrees that a decision has to be made in three months. So Lovell and Olsen begin a competition to see who can be first to learn "Nellish," as Lovell terms Nell's secret language. Lovell moves a tent into the woods and sets himself up as a sylvan guardian angel; Olsen establishes camp on a houseboat loaded with computers and the latest high tech surveillance tools. She begins her studies scrupulously filling notebooks and keeping her margins neat. She begins as a scholar, and yet even the untrained eye can see that one of her goals is to become Nell's mother. Later, she eschews psychology for Nell's lake and swims, laughing, like a mink.

Lovell and Olsen aren't to blame for their mistakes. Nell's world is seductively lovely, with acres of brilliant trees and moody, smoky hollows, and seductively full of possibilities -- what might be gained by being like Nell? or by understanding her? The surroundings and all they offer are elegant traps that Lovell and Olsen and the audience, walk right into, wide-eyed and mesmerized.

One of the movie's most charming tricks is Nell's unique language. It's a perfect mystery that, in hindsight, is perfectly clear. You feel you are learning the language as the story progresses. Much of her speech is filled with archaic words taken from the King James Bible; Nell's word for beautiful, "Tirzah" comes from The Song of Solomon: "Thou art beautiful, my love, as Tirzah, as lovely as Jerusalem, as awesome as army with banners."

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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