By: Gienie Assink
Nell is the story of a young woman (played by Jodie Foster) raised in virtual isolation in backwoods Appalachia. When her mother and sister die, Nell is discovered and cared for by a small town doctor Jerry Lovell (Liam Neeson) and big-city psychologist Paula Olson (Natasha Richardson). Much of the film centers on conflicts within and between Lovell and Olsen, as they try, from differing perspectives, to understand and help Nell.
At first, Nell’s utterances sound like gibberish to Lovell and Olsen. But they soon discover that, in her isolation, she learned a strange version of English was spoken by her mother (a stroke victim who read to Nell from the King James Version of the Bible) and her twin sister (with whom Nell shared a secret linguistic code). Now that both the mother and sister have died, no one speaks Nell’s language. Nell’s linguistic isolation is as profound as her physical distance from the rest of the world.
Nell’s story is reminiscent in many ways of Helen Keller’s early childhood as described to the well-known film The Miracle Worker, both Nell and Helen were intelligent young women, misunderstood and misdiagnosed by “experts” who assumed their lack of ability to speak intelligibly was a sign of limited mental abilities. Both were cut off from the rest of the world until they developed the ability to communicate with others by a shared language system.
The Miracle Worker and Nell are by no means identical tales. Helen Keller’s story is biographical, while Nell’s is a work of fiction. Furthermore, the films’ different conclusions show that linguistic skill is no guarantee of living happily ever after. While learning to communicate opened the door to live a rich and productive life for Helen Keller, Nell found the “civilized world” a less hospitable place. Despite their differences, both movies offer profound insights into the potential and power of language in the human experience.