Brett Morgen’s revelatory “Jane” offers up contributions from a bounty of some of film’s finest working professionals, from the award-winning Morgen himself to composer Philip Glass and cinematographer Ellen Kuras, but the real star is reams of lauded wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick’s pristine 16mm footage, following the early years of wildlife conservationist Jane Goodall, mostly set in her adopted home of Gombe, Tanzania. Well, the real star is Goodall (and her chimps, her accomplishments, and her passion, but mostly just the eponymous Jane), but the footage itself is a sterling testament to not just Goodall’s career, but also Morgen’s incredible eye and craftsmanship.
Gifted with so much raw material — and a cooperative Goodall, who offered up interviews and materials and necessary context at seemingly every turn — Morgen has made the definitive portrait of Goodall, one that is also remarkably accessible and almost unbearably tender.
Principally comprised of 16mm footage shot during Goodall’s early years by her eventual husband van Lawick (himself a great animal lover and beloved photographer), the movie’s very existence is something of miracle even before taking into account how good and insightful it is. Van Lawick’s original footage was believed lost for more than five decades before being discovered in the National Geographic archives, a stunning collection of lush material that focuses mostly during Goodall’s first years in Gombe. Goodall herself offers up narration, and even appears in the present day in a handful of interviews conducted with Morgen.
Though van Lawick didn’t join Goodall until two years into her study, Morgen uses his footage to recreate Jane’s early adventures, guided by her own voiceover and copious notes (charming animation literally brings them to life). While “Jane” might not include those first scenes of Goodall breaking through with her primate pals, the approximations are good enough — and just as moving.
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A lifelong animal lover who was given the unexpected opportunity to travel to Tanzania and embed herself with the chimps as part of a study (commissioned by archaeologist and paleontologist Louis Leakey, who was compelled by the idea that a novice could extract more information from the experience than a trained scientist, one potentially rife with their own biases), “Jane” follows Goodall as she makes her earliest introductions to both Gombe and its chimps.
Goodall’s affection for her subjects carries her through many hard times, from those early months when she’s purely an observer, to later years, after she’s fully accepted by them. Morgen and editor Joe Beshenkovsky have amusingly and entertainingly cut together whole sequences of young, wide-eyed Goodall traipsing through what would become a tiny national park, always in pursuit of both the chimps and the knowledge they may provide her. Early discoveries are lightly dramatized with older footage, principally Goodall’s first big breakthrough, when she realized that her chimps were capable of using tools, something once thought to be solely in the realm of man.
Van Lawick’s startling footage — so crisp, so colorful, so immediate — is immersive on its own, but guided by Morgen’s shaping and Goodall’s honest and open-hearted contributions, the film takes on an even more emotional cast. As “Jane” winds on, her accomplishments bleed from professional to personal, pushing onward to the present day and her many good deeds (canny parallels between her and the chimps are well handled and not at all pushy). The film is mostly a love story, though not just of Goodall and van Lawick (though theirs is as satisfying as any epic big-screen romance), but of Goodall and her chimps, her work, her entire life.
Few films this year offer up such lush and beautiful formal components as “Jane” (Glass’ score is, to be noted, also very lovely), but Morgen has also made a film of deep emotional beauty, the kind of satisfying, stick-with-ypu fare that any filmmaker would love to make. Armed with a compelling subject and aided by such careful craft, “Jane” isn’t just required viewing for fans of Goodall or animal lovers, but anyone seeking a classic in the making.
“Jane” had its world premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It will arrive in limited theatrical release on October 20.