THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Tuesday, December 27, 1994 TAG: 9412240027 SECTION: DAILY BREAK PAGE: E1 EDITION: FINAL TYPE: Movie Review SOURCE: BY MAL VINCENT, MOVIE CRITIC LENGTH: Medium: 87 lines
JODIE FOSTER makes a bold, artful bid for a third Oscar with a stunning change of pace in ``Nell.'' As a simple, primitive force of nature, she uses dance, pantomime, emotional swooning and facial expressions to suggest a girl who knows nothing of the restrictions of modern society.
Nell has lived for years in a backwoods cabin in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. She is discovered only after her mother dies. Jerome Lovell (Liam Neeson), a small-town doctor who is called to the cabin to examine the dead woman's body, spies Nell nearby and quickly perceives that she is not accustomed to the presence of strangers - in effect, the rest of the world.
He asks for permission to spy on her for three months to learn how she has survived and how she lives. Nell speaks a strange language that she learned from her mother, whose speech had been impaired by a series of strokes.
The outside world, however, keeps infringing. A doctor from Charlotte (Natasha Richardson) shows up and wants to apply more scientific, stodgy methods to analyzing Nell.
Finally, it is necessary to take her into town. Nell, as so interestingly played by the awesome Foster, doesn't have the guile adults use in the real world. In her own fashion, she does and says what comes naturally. She has not learned to lie or be hypocritical.
The problem is that the plot is so predictable. Nell either has to stay or go back to the woods. Most people probably wouldn't choose the latter, but it might have been believable within the context of this movie.
As it is, ``Nell'' is a one-woman show that never manages to develop much dramatic tension. We don't really become involved. The finale, a standoff in a makeshift courtroom, is too routine, too obvious and leaves too many questions unanswered.
The central characters should be those played by Neeson and Richardson; they are the two most influenced by Nell. He could have been a big-city doctor but has chosen instead to avoid the larger responsibilities of the outside world. She has played the career game and, consequently, lost touch with feelings. Her jealousy of Nell shows when she accuses him of having more than clinical interest.
Neeson is fine as the broad-shouldered, trustworthy doctor, suggesting his star-making role in ``Schindler's List'' will pay off with a Hollywood career. Richardson, who is Neeson's real-life wife and the daughter of actress Vanessa Redgrave, is better at more sultry roles. She hides her own luminous charisma, presumably to keep the focus on Foster.
Frankly, Foster is not the right choice for Nell. An unknown actress would have been more believable. In moonlit nude scenes, Nell looks more like a trained athlete than a backwoods woman. Foster's strength has always been in the way she handles language; her persona is so firmly etched as a strong, young, urban woman that we have trouble immediately accepting her in this role. Her technique almost gets in the way.
Because Foster produced the movie and secured the rights to the original play, Mark Handley's ``Idioglossia,'' is ``Nell'' more of an ego-trip stunt than a real performance? If so, it is still an interesting stunt to watch. It should be remembered, too, that four other performers won Oscars for showy roles in which they said nothing, or next to nothing: Jane Wyman in ``Johnny Belinda,'' John Mills in ``Ryan's Daughter,'' Patty Duke in ``The Miracle Worker'' and Holly Hunter in ``The Piano'' (her narration was off-screen).
Foster will clearly be in the running for her third statuette, but for my money, Sigourney Weaver's performance in ``Death and the Maiden,'' which has not yet been released locally, shapes up as the best by an actress this year.
Jodie Foster's performance is much better than the movie, but ``Nell'' is still one of those movies you should see. ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
Starring in ``Nell'' are, from left, Natasha Richardson, Jodie
Foster and Liam Neeson.
ANDREW COOPER/Twentieth Century Fox
Jodie Foster has the title role in ``Nell,'' about a woman raised in
backwoods isolation who must confront a new way of life.
Starring: Jodie Foster, Liam Neeson
Mal's rating: Three and a half stars