When now-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall went to Tanzania to study chimpanzees, she had no scientific qualifications or formal training. Armed with a passion for nature and her tenacity, she changed the way our closest cousins are understood by science.
Brett Morgan’s Jane blends hundreds of hours of archival footage with a new interview with Goodall and a score by Philip Glass. It’s astonishing to think now that before Goodall, the scientific community had no idea that chimps use tools, or that their intelligence is so closely linked to our own. There were so few studies of chimps in the wild, that in the film, Goodall confesses that she wasn’t even aware that chimps were especially dangerous animals. But with her lack of scientific expertise, Goodall tells us that her inexpert background freed her to observe the chimps’ behaviour without the bias of scientific consensus.
Goodall describes the early days of her research while archives are pieced together to construct a narrative of those early months and years. The grainy colour footage is truly beautiful, capturing the diversity of life in the bush as well as the unique personalities of the chimps Goodall gradually bonded with. That footage was shot by Goodall’s future husband, Hugo van Lawick, who, as Jane notes, shot her with as much interest as her chimps. For those already familiar with Goodall’s story, Morgan’s film adds little new to the picture, but is instead a tribute to her work and her enduring legacy, describing her scientific discoveries with her personal life as as one narrative whole.
For Goodall, the two were inextricable – in studying the chimps she formed close personal bonds with them, gaining their trust over many years. For traditional researchers, this merging of the scientific and the personal is a big no-no, but to Jane it made perfect sense. In a particularly moving segment, Goodall describes a polio epidemic that swept through the group. Crippling one of the older males, the decision was made to euthanise him. When she’s asked whether it would have been better to let nature take its course, she curtly replies: “No. I see no difference between helping a human who is suffering and an animal who is suffering. If I can help, I’m going to.”
Goodall’s conviction is compelling, passionate, and deeply moving, but at times Jane does feel a little too in awe of its subject. Her work was both revolutionary and profoundly important to the emerging conservation project, but Jane spins a one-sided version of Goodall, who is unassailably perfect. Philip Glass’ score, too becomes a little repetitive over the film’s 90 minutes, repeating the same theme ad nauseum, and occasionally Goodall’s constant narration gets in the way of the often stunning imagery. Jane makes no claims to objectivity, however, but instead is a deeply felt, loving tribute to a truly remarkable woman.