Deep in the forest surrounding an isolated town in North Carolina there is a small, simple cabin, home to an old woman and her daughter. The daughter is Nell, and her mother has just passed away, but Nell has nobody to turn to in her grief, as nobody knows she exists.
After a local delivery boy discovers the body, the town’s doctor, Jerry Lovell, is called to the cabin where he finds Nell. Although it first appears she is merely distraught over the loss of her mother it soon becomes apparent that Nell is unlike anyone Jerry has met before. Raised in total isolation, Nell is unaware of how to interact with strangers and, uniquely, has developed her own language. Her lack of contact with the outside world combined with her mothers slurred speech – due to a number of strokes – has allowed Nell’s language to evolve so far from English she is unable to be understood by anyone, it is clear Jerry will need some help.
He turns to a psychologist specialising in the treatment of disturbed children, who unfortunately sees Nell just as much as an opportunity to further her own career as a woman in need of help. Now Jerry has to battle with the academic community, in and out of the courts, to preserve Nell’s way of life, and ensure she doesn’t spend the rest of her life in an institution.
Nell is a film with lofty ambitions, and such ambitions are difficult to achieve. The most obvious is the performance from Jodie Foster, as Nell she has taken on a tremendous task in attempting to capture the psyche of a woman raised in solitude, by a woman with a skewed perspective on the world, with the added obstacle of speaking an unknown language. But the films loftiest ambition is also its biggest success as Foster displays a truly remarkable performance. Her portrayal of Nell walks a very thin line, we’ve all seen Hollywood stars attempting the Rain Man route to Oscar glory before, and it is difficult to convince any audience to forget the baggage that comes with stardom and accept the character, but here Foster does exactly that. Her performance is never anything less than convincing, she portrays the initially simple, child-like world of Nell excellently, and doesn’t falter as she reveals the deeper, darker motivations behind Nell’s difficult behaviour.
Neeson also convinces as Dr. Lovell, treading ethically ambiguous grounds while he tries to unlock Nell’s past, discover the complexities of her language, and try his hardest not to fall for her. His relationship with the psychologist, played by Natasha Richardson, moves almost parallel to that with Nell, beginning clinical and removed before becoming something much deeper, but is his growing attraction merely a displacement of his affections for Nell? This aspect of the performance was always going to be easy for him as Neeson and Richardson were married less than a year before filming, but the dual relationship he’s developing does add an interesting aspect to the storyline.
Sadly though great acting alone does not make a film great, and the uneven story is the film's ultimate downfall. The languid pace is well suited to the material, but the lack of consistency is much more difficult to appreciate. While Nell begins intriguingly, and continues to hold your interest throughout the early stages, the closer we get to the inevitable courtroom climax the more heavy handed and rushed Michael Apted’s direction becomes. Why simply imply that Nell’s natural environment is better than the ‘civilised’ world when you can beat the message home with a sledgehammer, with Nell’s first foray into the sleepy redneck town a case in point. Her subtle character arc taking a hugely accelerated nosedive in order to expedite the films conclusion. Apted has handled similar material much better before, Gorillas in the Mist having ultimately the same message delivered in a much more effective manner, but at least he remembers how to shoot scenery. The Blue Ridge mountain vistas are captured beautifully, and it’s understandable that Nell would never want to leave, and everybody else wands to stay.
Ultimately Nell’s faltering pace isn’t enough to make it a bad film, there is still much here to enjoy, but it prevents fine performances from making an excellent film.
The image quality displayed on the disc is excellent, and it needed to be. Between the detailed forest environments, the expansive long shots of cloudy mountain peaks, and the large amount of night scenes there is a lot to push the skills of the disc encoders. Of course the advantage of a disc without extras is there is plenty of room for picture data, and Nell uses it all, with a consistently high bit rate that exceeds that of most Superbit dvds. The first time I saw Nell was on VHS and the difference in clarity is startling, the night scenes of Nell and Jerry’s swimming being the most obvious to benefit with detail and contrast to really show off the excellent photography. Colour definition during the daytime scenes is equally impressive, with Nell’s forest environment overflowing with lush greens and subtle earth tones, the environments are well served by the picture. I think that it is safe to say this is the best Nell has ever looked, the transfer more than doing justice to the photography.
Unfortunately Nell has only been given a stereo soundtrack on dvd, though it is a good one. The film is largely dialogue driven and even the most ambitious 5.1 track wouldn’t have anything spectacular to do, but some nice ambient effects could have been utilised, especially within the forest surroundings. As it is we’re left with a simple soundtrack that doesn’t pull you in to the film, rather, brings the film to you.
There are also stereo soundtracks available in French, German and Spanish.
Nell only comes equipped with a theatrical trailer, which is a shame as it is a film with a rich background. There was plenty of room for a documentary on the films origins, as it was adapted for the screen by Mark Handley from his own play Idioglossia. Alongside which some interviews with the cast would have been interesting, particularly Foster on her preparation for an incredibly challenging role, which really makes this disc a missed opportunity.
Nell weaves together some intriguing themes, the development of the personality, the nature vs. nurture argument and the supposed benefits of civilisation, all of which exists alongside two charming love stories, both romantic and platonic, but it never draws anything more than simplistic, well worn conclusions – that is where it draws any. The performances make this an entertaining distraction, and Nell’s charms will blind many to the faults of the film, but ultimately it could have been so much more.
The disc mirrors this by being as bare bones as they come, and only the picture deserves any technical praise, though at least the price tag matches the disc contents.