Jodie Foster's beguiling mix of pre-linguistic drawling and moon-eyed curiosity make hers one of the most engrossing portrayals of stunted development captured on film. Although Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson provide strong support as Foster's surrogate parents, Nell lives on the strength of Foster's unselfconscious dedication to her craft. She awards and rescinds trust like a wounded animal, and she's convincingly fluent in a sing-songy language that flows effortlessly. Michael Apted is a fitting director for the project, as the film blends themes from his Gorillas in the Mist and his respected documentary series 7 Up. Acclaimed cinematographer Dante Spinotti captures the Carolina woods with virtuosity, from the helicopter shot that accompanies the opening credits to the moving camera following Nell through the lakes and forest stomping grounds of her memory. Despite talent bursting from every pore, however, Nell can't quite escape its disease-of-the-week trappings. The script follows familiar patterns when it turns into a tug of war between the humanists who prize Nell's happiness and the scientists who yearn to probe and examine her. The fact that this culminates in a courtroom competency hearing with considerably lax standards just underscores the film's conventionality. Still, Foster's Oscar nomination was clearly justified, and one can understand why Neeson and Richardson develop an intense parental affection for her character.
by Derek Armstrong review