Nell (movie reviews)
   Source:  National Review, Feb 6, 1995 v47 n2 p72(3).
    Title:  Nell._(movie reviews)
   Author:  John Simon
 Subjects:  Motion pictures - Reviews
   People:  Apted, Michael
            Missel, Renee
            Handley, Mark
            Nicholson, William
            Neeson, Liam
            Richardson, Natasha
            Foster, Jodie
Rev Grade:  F
     Fiche Collection:  77F0507
Electronic Collection:  A16448417
                   RN:  A16448417

Full Text COPYRIGHT National Review Inc. 1995

IT WOULD be hard to find a more self-serving, fatuous, and totally useless
film than Nell, co-produced by its star, Jodie Foster, as the ultimate ego
trip. It deals with a young girl, Nell, who grows up in the Carolina
wilderness. The only language she speaks is something private and
incomprehensible she has derived from the speech of her mother. (Being
illegitimate, she had no father around. This mother had had a stroke, and
spoke a kind of gibberish--rather like that mumbled after a stroke by Sir
Anthony Hopkins in Legends of the Fall, which, along with Mixed Nuts, is one
of the two foulest of the current crop of movies.

The genesis of Nell was this: "In 1989, producer Renee Missel [Miss Foster's
partner! saw a Los Angeles production of a play entitled Idioglossia, written
by Mark Handley, and fell in love with its lead character, the beautiful and
mysterious Nell." This sentence from the press kit tells it all. I have no
access to the original play, but I think I can reconstruct it from the
distorting mirror of what has now been Fosterized into Nell, quite a leap from
Idioglossia, which, of course, would spell instant death on the marquee and at
the box office.

I would guess that the play concerned the efforts of a dedicated doctor to
unscramble the idiolect of a wild child, and, by teaching her regular speech,
save her from growing up absurb.

Mr. Simon is NR's film critic. Idioglossia is defined by the OED as "a form of
dyslalia in which the person affected consistently makes substitutions in his
speech sounds to such an extent that he seems to speak a language of his own."
(In case "dyslalia" is a problem, it means "derangement or impediment of
speech." I shouldn't be surprised if this was in fact a two-character play,
somewhat on the order of The Miracle Worker, but language therapy in an age
without unified language wouldn't play at your neighborhood Loew's or
Cineplex. The movie, co-scripted by Mr. Handley and William Nicholson,
doubtless to the specifications of its star, does indeed include dyslalia and
its treatment by the enlightened country doctor, played by Liam Neeson, but
only as wrapped in much other stuff and fluff.

First, there is the glorification of Miss Foster. She gets to play the heroine
as a teenager ("My, Jodie, how young you look!"), as a savage child of nature
("My, Jodie, what an adorably puckish free spirit you are!"), as a beautiful
nymph swimming merrily in the nude ("My, Jodie, what a terrific, youthful body
you have!"), as an innocent who has to be shown what the male body looks like
by having Neeson strip in front of her ("My, Jodie, how generously you share
that gorgeous hunk with the rest of us!"), and still letting Mr. Neeson have
an affair with and eventually marry the second-lead female, played by Natasha
Richardson, his real-life spouse ("My, Jodie, how selflessly you allow the
hunk to marry someone more suitable in the end!"), with the couple all but
adopting Nell into the bosom of their growing family as a Foster child.

Several things, to use a linguistic trope, do not parse here. Nell's mother's
corpse is discovered by a delivery boy bringing groceries to the isolated
cottage in the woods where mom lived the hermit's life with the wild love
child she hid from the civilized world. But do hermits usually dwell within
range of bicycling delivery boys? We need this boy so that he can become,
first, one of a couple of gapers spying on Nell bathing in the nude (Susanna
and the Juniors?), and later, when she is brought into town and wanders into a
pool hall, for a dramatic near-rape scene at the hands of these boys and their
fellow lounge lizards, with Neeson coming to the last-moment rescue. Having
played a rape victim in The Accused, Miss Foster knows that rape sells a lot
better than dyslalia.

But let us not sell dyslalia short. The handicapped--or, more politically
correctly, the otherwise enabled--are hot commodities these days. Especially
those handicapped in speech in these times when Standard English is considered
a needless affront to practitioners of street English, black English, or
bilingualism (i.e., Spanish). So the movie ends with an epilogue captioned
Five Years Later," in which Mr. Neeson and Miss Richardson come back to visit
the more or less cured Miss Foster--it is not quite clear how well she has
mastered Standard English--and she takes their eldest daughter out to the lake
where she herself used to swim mother-neckid (and, for aught we know, still
does, since she chooses to live on in that, to be sure very accessible,
wilderness) and teaches her the same nonsense ditty she herself sang in her
pre-Neeson days, an ending that can be read as the apotheosis of bilingualism.

The Michael Apted movie is well shot in gorgeous locations by Dante Spinotti,
but the most interesting thing about it is that its co-scenarist was William
Nicholson, best known as writer of both the play and film versions of
Shadowlands. The hero of that is the same C. S. Lewis who in his book Studies
in Words warned about verbicide, the murder of correct language--the very
thing Nell is rather equivocal about. It was made by Miss Foster's production
company, Egg Pictures, and it certainly has laid a big one.
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