A Life’s Work On Film – Jane (Film Review)


SOME people are born with a passion and tenacity for their work that, regardless of age, never subsides. It is such a drive that often fuels greatness.

In the world of ethology, Jane Goodall – 83 years old and still travelling the world to educate children – stands out as an example of this, following her tremendous dedication to the study and preservation of chimpanzees. Brett Morgan’s documentary, Jane, offers a fresh and wonderfully moving perspective on the primatologist’s life through the use of previously lost footage.

Jane opens as the young British secretary arrives with National Geographic in Tanzania and leads us through a whole lifetime of work. As Morgan pointed out at a BFI London Film Festival screening of the film: ‘Jane has been a documentary star for 50 years now.’

We watch on as a passionate – but relatively unqualified – Goodall forges her way through the jungle. She gains the trust of the mischievous local chimps and works alongside photographer Hugo van Lawick (her future husband).

Success and global attention follows, some misogynistically more interested in Goodell’s legs than her inspiring pursuits. In fact, amid Hugo’s beautiful images of the natural world the mere sight of city life feels uncomforting. A notion that is highlighted when Morgan occasionally cuts away from chimps to bustling urban transport, a contrast that underlines the need to preserve endangered habitats from encroaching concrete civilizations.

Goodall’s story is not without its painful trials. A devastating polio outbreak and aggressive territorial primate behaviour brings death and tinges of sadness to proceedings. On a more personal note, the film honestly delves into the Goodall’s divorce from Hugo and the difficulties in raising their son Grub.  It highlights the sacrifices made for such an intense dedication to work – solitude and loneliness are common by-products of such tunnel-vision ambition.

Morgan, too, had to demonstrate a level of dedication, whittling down over 148 hours of disorganised video – consisting mostly of chumps sleeping, playing and scoffing bananas – to piece together Goodall’s story. With no sound accompanying the footage, Morgan also had to lean heavily upon the wisdom of film composer Philip Glass (The Thin Blue Line) to help breathe life into the images.

Glass succeeds in providing a searing score which brings the needed stirring, operatic gravitas to Goodall’s story. The director rightfully paid tribute to Glass by placing him in the same bracket as Goodall for his tireless work in cinema – two greats of the same ilk sharing the screen.

As well as Glass’ music, Morgan wisely bypasses the usual array of talking heads to allow Goodall to be the primary voice of the film. This helps paint a personal portrait of the primatologist which even reaches into a historical archive of research charts and letters.

The documentary, however, would not have been a possible without the discovery of Hugo’s breath-taking footage. Morgan was keen to emphasise that Jane is just as much a vehicle to pay tribute to the cameraman as it is to tell Goodall’s story. His remarkable achievements with rudimentary resources are on full, mesmerising display.

As Morgan told the audience: ‘Few people have as extraordinary a life as Jane. Even fewer can articulate that experience. Probably none of those few left in that pool had their entire life photographed by the world’s greatest cinematographer from the age of 24 on.’

Jane is an ode to people who have dedicated their lives to a pursuit – even at great personal expense. It captures the devoted spirit of Goodall’s work, as well as giving space to showcase the talent’s of Hugo and Glass.

At the core of this glorious documentary, of course, is a Goodall inspired message about the importance of protecting nature. Jane is not just celebration, but also a poignant reminder of the hard work that lies ahead.

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