By Edwin Jahiel

NELL ** 1/2. Directed by Michael Apted. Written by William Nicholson and Mark Handley. Based on play "Idioglossia" by Mark Handley. Photography, Dante Spinotti. Production design, Jon Hutman. Editing, Jim Clark. Costumes, Susan Lyall. Music, Mark Isham. Cast: Jodie Foster, Liam Neeson, Natasha Richardson, Richard Libertini, Nick Searcy, Robin Mullins, Jeremy Davies, O'Neal Compton, the Bomba twins. A 20th Cent. Fox release. 110 min. Rated PG-13.

"I have always preferred the normal to the abnormal. It is so much more interesting and complex." (Gertrude Stein)

The "abnormal" or para-normal subject of "Nell" poses a number of problems. "Nell" is about the discovery of a feral young woman, a "wild child" -- even though this term is rejected by the Liam Neeson character in the movie. He plays kind family doctor Jerome Lovell who opted for the simple, natural life in rural North Carolina. When the body of an old woman, a hermit, is discovered in a remote cabin, her daughter Nell (Jodi Foster) who grew up with no contacts with the outside world, becomes the object of Dr. Lovell's curiosity, study, sympathy, solicitude and help.

I won't describe the attributes, characteristics and behavior of Nell. They go more or less, go by the "wild child" canon, except that she speaks a near-impenetrable language of her own invention. This is nicely explained: her mother became a recluse after being raped, and strokes that paralyzed half her face made her speech difficult and different.

On the minus side though, the film vitiates a bit Nell's total separation from other people as the corpse is found by a young man who, it is obvious, periodically motorcycles to the remote cabin to deliver groceries. He picks up his habitual payment that's left in a purse well outside the house. You wonder too about the source of this money.

Dr. Lovell consults psychologist Dr. Paula Olsen (Richardson), in Charlotte, NC, and her boss, the eminent Dr. Paley (Libertini), who wants Nell placed in an institution. At a court hearing Lovell and Olsen manage to get a three-month probation period to see what they can do by staying with Nell in her familiar environment. All this for the good of Nell and --nice touch--in Olsen's case, for a study that would clinch her promotion to Full Professor.

The movie starts with stunning landscapes and lakes in the Smoky Mountains. It is, breath-catchingly, America the Beautiful. Then comes a mixed bag of movie cliches and original bits.

You get two handsome scientists (Hollywood forever!) who initially are antagonists but slowly ... you guessed it. Still, credit this predictability for its light, not irritating hand.

Olsen gets a leave of absence, plus a rather posh houseboat (in these days of academic belt-tightening?), plus high-tech video-surveillance equipment to observe Nell. How exactly this is set up is a mystery. The doctor however, in a marked contrast of warm Nature vs. impersonal Technology, camps out in a pup tent.

You get Nell skinny dipping in the moonlight and Dr. Olsen in a fashionable bathing suit and careful makeup. But you don't get enough details on procedures, interactions, or Nell's reactions to the Brave New World of electronics and machines.

There are inconsistencies. Nell, on her first visit to a town, rides a convertible, soaks it all up happily, without her usual panic at the many new, strange things that frighten her. Then comes the expected intrusion of the press and the movie-inevitable encounter of Nell with some movie-cliche, poolroom, ready-to-rape creeps.

At the second, decisive hearing, the courtroom scenes are generic and unconvincing; Dr. Paley is made into an insensitive, misguided know-it-all; Nell's speech (translated) is unbelievable.

We jump to a "Five Years Later" happy ending but no real closure. Most questions are left unanswered: has Nell really gone back to nature? If so, how and why? What are her thoughts, feelings, means of sustenance? Still, if it's got to be that way, the movie cleverly withholds information by not having Nell speak, whether in her own language or in English.

Jodi Foster's tour de force performance in a challenging role is expressive and impressive. I wonder though why her body language is often like having a sexual high, and, more importantly, if the mostly incomprehensible dialogue does not keep Nell at some distance from us. Neeson is most simpatico, low-key, sensitive, and expressive too. Richardson is merely OK.

The odd thing is that the picture keeps bobbing up and down. The early parts are steadily interesting. The long middle section on the "taming" of Nell alternates beteen gripping and soporific. The last part has vigor, but too much of it. Even so, the film's production aspects (settings, camera-work, music, etc.) are first-rate and the package as a whole is quite appealing when viewed -- but starts dimming quickly. It left me with no major echoes or repercussions.

Richard Figge, a top educator and actor, hit the nail on the head. He wrote me: " Jodie Foster was really remarkable. It was absorbing fun to watch. In retrospect I keep coming back to the sentimentality of it, all the noble savage, Kaspar Hauser sort of stuff, and what I am left with is the astounding performance, the fascination of the linguistic side of it. Marvelously done. But what are we to make of the ending of the film? Isn't it finally too easy? Are we to assume that she is living there alone again? Surely they aren't all living together? What of the dangerous things predicted earlier on? "

Viewers interested in films along the lines of "Nell" should get the superb German "The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser" mentioned above, the model for all feral youths movies, "The Wild Child" by Francois Truffaut , or even "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes," which is vastly entertaining as well as moving.