Nell (Jodie Foster) was raised in an isolated cabin in the deep woods by her Bible-quoting mother whose speech was distorted as the result of several strokes. These hermits had almost no contact with civilization and learned to live in a world apart. Their idyll, however, was broken when the old woman died.
Dr. Jerome Lovell (Liam Neeson), a country physician, discovers Nell and is mystified by her wildness and her strange speech patterns. He wants to protect her from the media and others who would break her spirit.
Dr. Paula Olsen (Natasha Richardson), a psychologist, is also interested in Nell. She wants to take her to a university hospital where they can study her behavior. Perhaps Nell can teach researchers more about the interplay of nature and nurture in human development.
A court gives the two doctors three months to observe Nell in her woods environment before determining whether she is mentally competent to make the decision to stay there or needs to be institutionalized. The physician manages to decipher Nell's strange language, while the psychologist monitors her activities in the cabin via video. At first competitors, the two scientist are drawn together as they get to know Nell better. She, it turns out, is a much wiser woman than they had assumed.
Nell is a deeply spiritual film with a screenplay by William Nicholson based on the play Idioglossia by Mark Handley. Director Michael Apted makes the most of the sudden shift in setting from the rustic wilderness to the big city where the court hearing takes place.
Jodie Foster's performance as Nell is astonishing as she brings to life the sensitivity and beauty of this young woman who may be unfamiliar with the size, speed, and pressure of the modern world, but who is well acquainted with grief. Liam Neeson exudes tenderness in the role of Dr. Lovell, who quickly becomes Nell's friend. And Natasha Richardson is just right as the psychologist who learns from this outsider how to break down the walls she has constructed to keep other people away.
Although Nell calls Dr. Lovell her guardian angel, she is the messenger of God to these scientists. She introduces them to their inner child and to the joys of the natural world. She draws them together after a fight and is the catalyst who enables them to share the stories of their intimate lives. Finally, Nell helps them realize that we need to be supportive and supported when the sorrows of life overwhelm us.
The movie Nell will touch you and perhaps heal you with its message that we can all be angels bringing grace and trust and light into each other's lives.