Natasha Richardson

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Annotated by:
Woodcock, John

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film


Following the death of an aphasic hermit woman in the woods of North Carolina, it is discovered that she is survived by a daughter (Jodie Foster), a young woman who lives by herself as a kind of wild child, speaking a private language, and intensely fearful of human contact. The authorities decide that she must be normalized for her own good, but Dr. Jerry Lovell (Liam Neeson) disagrees, arguing that, although different, she is fine and has not asked for help. He insists on getting her informed consent before treatment. A judge agrees to give Lovell three months to observe the woman, whose name turns out to be Nell, and find evidence that she should not be treated against her will.

Lovell recruits a partner, psychologist Paula Olsen (Natasha Richardson), and together they set up an observation base on a houseboat with a view of Nell's cabin. From there Lovell makes a series of attempts to win Nell's confidence and understand her language. (Olsen for much of the film mainly represents a set of professional values more conservative that Lovell's unconventional therapeutic moves--which, for example, make her suspect that he is sexually attracted to Nell. Her own sexual presence, while downplayed, serves to defuse this potential.)

Lovell wins Nell's confidence (she calls him her "guardian angel") and the secrets of her speech and wounded psyche (a twin sister died young, and Nell has apparently at least witnessed sexual abuse). Following a court hearing in which Nell speaks in her own defense, the world gets word of her case and journalists descend on her remote cabin on foot and by helicopter.

Fearing that civilization will destroy Nell, Lovell arranges to have her hospitalized as the least available evil. However, when he finds her drugged, he sees that hospitalization is no solution, and he carries Nell out of the hospital and back to her cabin. He tries to make her understand that he is not her guardian angel.

The film switches to a warmly-lit lakeside scene five years later, when all problems seem to have been solved. Lovell and Olsen, who are married with a little girl, and several other sympathetic characters are picnicking with Nell near her cabin, and Nell is shown entranced and somehow emotionally fulfilled in being with the child, who is the age at which her twin sister died.

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