December 12, 1994 12:00 PM

Jodie Foster, Liam Neeson, Natasha Richardson

Foster displays one bit of star vanity: Her teeth are perfect—radiantly clean—and more than a little distracting, considering that they belong in the mouth of an impoverished backwoods woman raised in such profound seclusion she speaks what at first sounds like a wholly original language. Other than that, Foster’s performance is, as usual, admirably disciplined, developed with a sureness and care that—combined with the soft chirpings of the vocabulary devised by writers William Nicholson and Mark Handley—creates an effect that is almost musical.

Reluctantly, though, one concludes that this is essentially a lot of mock Esperanto, signifying nothing. Reluctantly, because (1) Michael Apted’s direction is blessedly quiet (“The cinematic world has gotten so noisy,” sighed the genteel reviewer); (2) the production is handsome, filling the screen with rolling, leafy hills; (3) real-life husband and wife Neeson and Richardson as, respectively, a physician and a psychologist who help Nell, have a kissing scene in which their chemistry is potent; and (4) Nell unveils her tragic past with touches of true, mournful poetry. But what good are taste, tact and strong, white teeth when the movie doesn’t have the decency to treat Nell as a human being? Despite Foster’s solid work, this woman is essentially a conceit, closer to the mythical noble savage than any real wild child. All who come in contact with Nell are touched by her innocence and mesmerized by the way her lean, angular body dances through the woods. Richardson learns to cry freely over a childhood trauma, and a sheriff’s wife is cured of depression. Lovely, lovely—but who pays for Nell’s food? Wouldn’t a woman of such obvious sensitivity and fundamental intelligence blossom even more fully if she were taught to read? And how does she deal with her sexual feelings? This movie is like The Miracle Worker staged by mountebanks. (PG-13)”

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