Nell is raised in the remote backwoods of North Carolina, never having met anyone except her mother...
Twelve months after Holly Hunter sign-languaged her way to an Oscar for The Piano, Jodie Foster attempted a similar feat. And while she may be noisier than Hunter, Foster nonetheless displays an equally inept grasp of things grammatical, in a bizarre wild woman saga that appears to have graduated from the Jane Campion school of filmmaking. We would be talking sympathy gongs aplenty here, were it not for the fact that the movie is disappointingly less than the sum of its worthy parts.
Foster is the titular Nell, a woman astonishingly well-groomed considering she has spent her entire life in an isolated woodland cabin. When she is discovered by doctor Liam Neeson with only a dead mum for company, she is gibbering an incomprehensible language that makes Forrest Gump sound like an orator of Shakespearian proportions. So begins the attempt to integrate Nell into civilisation (with an odd combination of popcorn and Patsy Cline's greatest hits), courtesy of Neeson and fellow medic Natasha Richardson, and to establish just what the Dickens she's blathering on about.
This is a solemn, humourless picture that often threatens to become almost world-beatingly self-important, with even the usually watchable Neeson failing to convince. The drama does not so much creep subtly into proceedings as batter the viewer senseless, while events seem to gloss over the fact that most people would just consider her a babbling idiot.
What saves the film is an emotive performance from Foster as the waif-like wood-dweller, served admirably by a backdrop of picture postcard scenery. Ultimately, though, it comes across as a man's eye view of what a women's film should be like, and although it's not altogether clunky, you can't help but feel that in the hands of a more sympathetic director it could have been something really quite special.