Sarah Ward

Never-before-seen footage provides an insightful and inspirational window into the life and work of Jane Goodall.

There’s a sparkle in Jane Goodall’s eye when she’s first seen in Jane, wandering through the Tanzanian jungle. It’s the 1960s, and she’s in the early days of her pioneering research in Gombe, where she lived amongst chimpanzees and led the first significant study into their behaviour in the wilderness. When the now-octogenarian primatologist, ethologist and anthropologist is next seen in her contemporary guise, time might’ve taken its toll but the same gleam remains. As it should, for it’s the unmistakable look of someone doing what they love, with passion, in a field and for a cause they’re enthusiastically devoted to. 

While the younger Jane most often monopolises the documentary’s frames, her older presence provides the film’s narration — and their pairing, of the sights of the past with the insights of the present, is as moving and enthralling as it is informative and even astonishing. Delving through a treasure trove of more than 100 hours of footage from Gombe, writer/director Brett Morgen (Cobain: Montage of Heck) makes full use of everything at his disposal, including intimate recorded material long thought lost. Filmed by Dutch wildlife filmmaker and photographer Hugo van Lawick — who was dispatched by National Geographic to capture Goodall’s work, and would become her husband of ten years — the 16mm content that comprises much of Jane was discovered in 2014.

So it is, with vision from the time, that Jane steps through the story of the 26-year-old English secretary selected to live in the jungle, observe a community of chimpanzees and apply her learnings towards human behaviour. Goodall was picked by Kenyan paleoanthropologist Dr Louis Leakey partly for her non-academic, non-scientific background; he wanted someone who wouldn’t bring the bias of prevailing theory to the job. For a woman who had dreamed of this very assignment since she was a girl, however — “going to Africa, living with animals was all I ever thought about,” she offers — it felt like she was following the right path. And it was with that sense of destiny and determination that Goodall took to her task, persevering when the chimps initially fled from her; when she was rankled by having an outsider in the midst upon van Lawick’s arrival; when she was hardly taken seriously by the press due to her age, gender and approach; and when marriage and motherhood came calling.

Of course, Goodall’s tale is far from new news. Thanks to her ground-breaking research and her tireless conservation campaigning over more than half a century, hers is a household name. Accordingly, while Jane hews close to its eponymous figure, the documentary is as much an account of her initial findings as it is her own quest and its impact upon her personal life. Though both are inescapably intertwined, the former is clearly what Goodall would prefer to focus on, her calm tone slightly more lively when she’s talking about the work rather than herself. The never-before-seen footage supports her preference, too. She’s a warm and inspirational presence whether she’s peering through the trees or interacting with the primates she’d name David Greybeard, Mr. McGregor, Flo, Fifi and Flint, to list a few, but the chimps do just what she had always hoped: speak volumes about life, love, connection, social conduct, inherent instincts and more. 

For the wondrous experience that results, Goodall deserves much of the credit, both then and now, but Morgen does what he does best as well. As Cobain: Montage of Heck demonstrated so richly and evocatively, he’s skilled at finding and conveying the core of his subjects in an immersive and emotionally resonant manner; as his documentary about film producer Robert Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture, also showed, he’s also adept at wading through his chosen topic in the exact right style. Here as in his previous efforts, there’s a natural flow to his exploration, with the assistance of Montage of Heck editor Joe Beshenkovsky’s integral input, and set to the rousing sounds of Philip Glass’ orchestral score. Most importantly, however, he knows how to let the feature’s assets shine: Goodall’s curiosity, compassion and candour; the chimpanzees’ inherent, easily recognisable behaviour; and an appreciation of both, as well as for the natural world.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5

Director: Brett Morgen
USA, 2017, 90 mins

Release date: In selected cinemas on 1 February
Screening at ACMI from 15 February
Distributor: National Geographic
Rated: E (Not recommended for persons under 15 without guidance from parents or guardians)

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, Metro Magazine and Screen Education. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay