Review: ‘Jane’

TIFF 2017

4 mins read

(USA, 90 min.)
Dir. Brett Morgen
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)


I went into Brett Morgen’s doc Jane with some trepidation. Did we really need a new Jane Goodall movie?

This one’s different, though.

The deal here is that National Geographic gave director Morgen 140 hours of footage of Jane Goodall shot from the 1960s by someone noted in TIFF’s program guide only as “photographer and filmmaker Hugo van Lawick.” Going into the screening, I’m thinking that some German filmmaker found some reason or another to go to Africa in the 1960s—maybe, like Peter Kubelka, he took a group of tourists?—shot some footage, and went home again. Of course the footage was lost, I’m thinking; it’s just amateur stuff shot by some random dude. The trick will be how Morgen manages to salvage it and turn it into something. Maybe it will even be something like the work of Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi. But with a Philip Glass score. Even in the theatre, with TIFF Doc programmer Thom Powers introducing the film as a “romantic epic,” I haven’t clued in yet.

True Jane Goodall devotees know where this is going. (Good on TIFF for not ruining it for the rest of us.) Hugo van Lawick isn’t some random dude: he was one of the great wildlife photographers of all time, and also Jane Goodall’s husband and the father of her child.

Powers wasn’t kidding when he called Jane a romantic epic. It’s just about as cool a love story as you’re going to get. Goodall, 26 years old, wildlife fanatic, no official education or training, goes out to Gombe Stream National Park (in present day Tanzania) all by herself studying chimpanzees in any way she can for the great paleoanthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey. She starts to become a sensation—“the girl who studies chimps.” National Geographic steps in to fund her research and sends Van Lawick to cover it. There’s some initial distaste—he smokes; she wants to be alone—but that gives way to an ever-closer partnership based on love of the animals and, increasingly, each other. Van Lawick’s camera loves Goodall, tall and blonde, climbing trees, peering through binoculars, playing with chimps, playing with him.

No sooner does Van Lawick leave than Goodall receives a telegram—yes, a fucking telegram, are you crying yet?—from him asking her to marry him. She says yes. They go honeymooning around Europe and when they get back their beloved chimp Flo has given birth. Soon Goodall and Van Lawick have their own kid. The research continues with the help of British students. Everything’s going swimmingly.

Things turn, of course—there’s a reason you’ve never heard of Van Lawick. Yes, they both love Africa and nature but how about each other? Predictably, the turn is accompanied by thunderstorms and the usual cloying Philip Glass bombast. (A technical note: the mix is all wrong; there are moments when the score so overwhelms the voiceover that you can’t hear a damn thing Goodall says.) Still, the film focuses on the good: Goodall’s accomplishments, as well as those of Van Lawick. Beyond the problems with the mix, it’s a smooth ride, and to the film’s credit, it can take platitudes like “follow your dreams” and “make the world a better place” and, by attaching them to Goodall, almost make you believe them.

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