Jodie Foster gives a masterful performance as Nell in this very unusual movie. Nell is a woman who has been raised and lived all of her life outside of the stream of modern life. She has lived with her mother in a remote cabin in the undisturbed and beautiful Smoky Mountains. This thesis might seem fantastic to many people, however, the situation depicted in the movie is not far-fetched. There are many places in North America which could easily be the geographic foundation for this kind of story. The Appalachians are only one area which still have a primitive and vast wilderness.
The movie begins with a delivery boy bringing a package to a remote cabin and discovering the woman he thought lived alone there, dead. The local family practice physician, Dr. Jerry Lovell (Liam Neeson, Rob Roy) is brought in by the sheriff. As they investigate the cabin they discover Nell, who has been hiding.
Dr. Jerry Lovell is the sort of physician who may still exist in less populated rural areas. I find it difficult to imagine him, or anyone like him, in an urban hospital, clinic or HMO. Eventually, their first meeting being quite awkward, Jerry gives Nell the sort of sympathy and attempt at understanding that she needs. Although all the small town characters are not as easy to like as Dr. Jerry Lovell, the parts are all acted very well. The direction is also excellent, provided by Michael Apted.Nellís speech is odd, to say the least. Her mother has had several strokes and suffered from partial facial paralysis as a result. This paralysis had a profound effect on her motherís speech. Since Nellís only known human exposure was to her mother the strange speech was passed on to her. There is more to the mystery of Nellís speech than the influence of her mother, but Iíll leave the rest to the movie to tell.
In the process of attempting to understand Nell, discovering her motherís history and the property records (Nell now owns a very large amount of property), Dr. Lovell (Neeson) enlists the aid of a psychology specialist Dr. Paula Olsen (Natasha Richardson). Dr. Olsen soon involves Nell with a medical institution, whose head admits to having ulterior motives. This leads to a court confrontation in which the medical establishment, represented by Dr. Olsen, wants Nell committed (ďfor her own goodĒ) and Dr. Lovell defends her right to live her own life. The judge gives three months to the parties to develop an understanding of Nellís language and ability to live on her own.
Jerry (Neeson) and Paula (Richardson) take up residence near the cabin and work toward the goal of understanding Nell, although they often seem to have very different goals. Their relationship provides more material for the storyline.
This movie has several different themes, but I find the overriding one to be that of the individualís freedom to live their life as they choose. The modern world and its institutions are not always friendly to that basic human drive. If you like a movie with a mystery to be solved and freedom to be won, that shows individuals battling against the conformity of the modern world, then you will find much to admire in Nell.