Gorillas in the Mist

March 18, 2011

In the opening scene of Gorillas in the Mist, we see a young Dian Fossey attending a lecture by the great scientist Louis Leakey.

Leakey sums up his interest in tracing man’s lineage through the apes by saying, “I want to know who I am and what it was that made me that way.”

We may assume Fossey went to Africa to investigate that premise and, in the 18 years she spent there, must have made both an anthropological expedition and a voyage of self-discovery in her study of mountain gorillas.

The film of her story can only hint at the connection she made with the gorillas, although it presents a watchable treatment of her work. Fossey, played by Sigourney Weaver (who does fine, uninhibited work in the most demanding role of her career), is seen as a stubborn and self-possessed woman who cared immediately and deeply for the endangered animals she found on a mountainside in Rwanda.

The more she observed her groups of gorillas, the more distinct their personalities became, to the point where she gave them names and recognized their regular habits—all of which she recounted in some landmark “National Geographic” articles and in her book, Gorillas in the Mist.

Equally importantly, she fought against poachers who were killing the apes. She’s given credit for single-handedly saving the mountain gorilla population. It’s her war with poachers that is generally believed to be behind her murder under mysterious circumstances in 1985.

The movie, to its credit, shows Fossey not as a white goddess, but as an increasingly autocratic and, toward the end, somewhat crazed zealot. Sigourney Weaver is good at catching the slightly mad dreaminess in Fossey’s gaze, even at the film’s beginning.

There’s also a romance with a “Geographic” photographer (Bryan Brown), skirmishes with a sleazy zoo contractor and a warm friendship with her tracker (a wonderfully gentle performance by a non-actor, John Omirah Miluwi).

The director, Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter), working from a screenplay by Anna Hamilton Phelan, does nicely by the lush locations and the presence of the gorillas. (Many of the apes are real while others are the creations of Oscar-winning makeup man Rick Baker.)

But Apted doesn’t quite find the key to unlocking this story; except for the touching relationship between Fossey and her favorite gorilla, Digit, the movie is superficial, providing some interesting information but little compelling drama.

There’s no question Fossey found herself when she went into Africa; but this film can’t find out who she was or what made her that way.

First published in the Herald, September 23, 1988

Rick Baker again, inescapable under these circumstances (he’s now won Oscars in four consecutive decades, did your realize?). If Sigourney Weaver was going to win an Oscar, this was the year that might’ve done it; she was nominated for best actress for this performance, and for supporting actress for Working Girl. Jodie Foster won best actress for The Accused, and Geena Davis won supporting for The Accidental Tourist. As for the monkey aspect, I couldn’t find my review of Link, so that’ll have to wait.