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Review: Found footage in ‘Jane’ leads to an incredible love story in new Goodall documentary

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Jane Goodall and infant chimpanzee Flint in Tanzania in the documentary “Jane.”
(Hugo van Lawick / National Geographic Creative)

Three love stories unfold in “Jane,” Brett Morgen’s stirring portrait of conservationist Jane Goodall. The first is the director’s respect and affection for his octogenarian subject. Embraced in the clear, honeyed light of Ellen Kuras’ cinematography, Goodall comes across as vibrantly plainspoken during a new interview.

There’s also the love between Goodall and wildlife filmmaker Hugo van Lawick, who would become her husband. His dazzling half-century-old footage of her groundbreaking observations of chimpanzees in Tanzania, discovered in the National Geographic archives in 2014 and never before viewed publicly, is the astonishing heart of “Jane.”

But the love that infuses the film is Goodall’s passion for her work, her bond with nature and the chimps, as well as her calm certainty, when she arrived at Gombe Stream National Park as a 26-year-old with no scientific credentials, that this was where she was meant to be. Goodall’s quiet amazement pulses through Van Lawick’s 16-mm footage of her on the hills and beaches of Gombe and in its impossibly green trees. Morgen lets the images speak, in eloquent combination with the spectacular intensity of Philip Glass’ score.

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“Jane” director Brett Morgen and primatologist Jane Goodall are photographed at the Hollywood Loews hotel.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times )
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No stranger to found footage, Morgen (“The Kid Stays in the Picture”) has tapped into NatGeo’s treasure trove with a bracing immediacy. (He also showcases the memorable exchange of telegrams that sealed Goodall and Van Lawick’s engagement, and excerpts Jack Paar’s 1973 interview of the couple and their young son.) His film is by no means comprehensive in the strictest sense (don’t expect overt nods to the Tanzanians and others who worked with Goodall), but it has a sure grasp of an extraordinary life finding its convention-defying trajectory.

Meeting a chimpanzee’s gaze, the pioneering researcher says she encountered “a thinking, reasoning personality.” With “Jane,” we see what she saw.

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‘Jane’

Not rated

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Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Playing: ArcLight Hollywood

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