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‘Gorillas in the Mist’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 23, 1988


Michael Apted
Sigourney Weaver;
Bryan Brown;
Julie Harris;
John Omirah Miluwi
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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Sigourney Weaver is a towering actress, both physically and otherwise, and for about a quarter of her new film, it seems that, at last, she may have found a part cut to her scale.

The role she plays in "Gorillas in the Mist" is that of the world-famous primatologist Dian Fossey, who gave up her work as a physical therapist and for 13 years -- before she was murdered in her sleep in 1985 -- devoted herself to the study of the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. And because for much of the film all we see is Fossey, alone on her mountain with, as she comes to call them, her gorillas, Weaver's more on display here than ever before. It's a great role for her to pour herself into, and she doesn't skimp. And to the extent that the movie will allow her to be, she is magnificent in it.

The chief problem with "Gorillas in the Mist" is that it banalizes its heroine; it turns her into one of us. And by all accounts Fossey was anything but ordinary. On this score, Weaver's performance and the filmmakers' sense of Fossey are at odds. The director, Michael Apted, who is working from a script by Anna Hamilton Phelan, would like us to believe that Fossey entered into her research and remained up on her mountain to the neglect of any normal life because of some misdirected maternal impulses or, worse yet, because she thought that gorillas were cute.

Nowhere is this Hollywoodizing of Fossey's life more disturbingly apparent than in the scenes featuring Bryan Brown as the National Geographic photographer sent to document her work, with whom she has an affair. The relationship is not an invention; Fossey did, in fact, have a serious involvement with a photographer named Bob Campbell. But it has been related here in such blatantly phony movie terms that we reject it outright as a sop to the audience to humanize her and make her more accessible.

Watching "Gorillas in the Mist," we would never know that Fossey was a serious scientist. Nor does the movie ever hint that Fossey was a writer. Also, the filmmakers don't help us much in understanding what moved Fossey to undertake her research. If we go by their version, it was because she attended a lecture by Louis Leakey and he said something stirring and her life was changed forever. (In truth, Fossey had already been to Africa when she met Leakey, and had a lifelong dream of doing research in Africa.) From the evidence here, they seem to think that their story is about how a woman discovers herself through her love for her animal babies.

To her credit, Weaver doesn't flinch from the more off-putting and odd aspects of her character. She revels in Fossey's eccentricity; it releases the clown in her and allows her to work more instinctively and more physically than she has before. Weaver's physical equipment comes in handy, and she uses her size here to show that, at six feet, Fossey was a woman who was used to standing out and who, at least to some degree, liked the attention and wasn't above making a messy scene.

Arriving in Rwanda to join Leakey and begin her work in the mountains, she throws a bratty tantrum and refuses to be separated from her hair dryer and her makeup case. (The awkward "Hi!" she blurts out to Leakey shows her gawkiness around people, too.) Tromping through the jungle in her silk blouse, Weaver risks making her character look ridiculous, but she also shows how Fossey was served by her foolhardy naivete', how it worked for her as a protective covering.

But Weaver is at her best when she's rolling on the ground with the gorillas, or squatting in the bush, grunting like an ape and pretending to chew on a leaf. (She's never been more beautiful than she is in these scenes.) Because these moments are virtually without dialogue, Weaver is very much on her own. And what she shows here is Fossey's longing to make contact with her subjects, to enter their world and become one of them.

But Fossey was more than merely eccentric. Details from the end of her life suggest that not only did her actions create problems for herself, they were beginning to work against the best interests of her gorillas as well. Suffering from emphysema and feeling increasingly withdrawn from the human world, Fossey had begun to fall apart, alienating the people who were best equipped to help her.

The movie hints at these aspects of her character but tries to soften them; it strives to make Fossey -- and her rage -- more palatable. Basically, the filmmakers can't deal with her craziness, so they justify it by showing her campaign against poachers, burning down their huts and threatening to hang a captured poacher. Granted, all this seems extreme, but given the provocations -- they had slaughtered Digit, her favorite gorilla, cutting off his head and hands for trophies -- it also seems understandable, and far from mad. Whipping the testicles of a captive with stinging nettles -- as she is reported to have done -- is mad and, by leaving out such details the filmmakers have done more than sanitize Fossey's life, they've deprived it of any meaning.

"Gorillas in the Mist" isn't a terrible film, but it is a frustrating one, and you can't help but feel betrayed by how the filmmakers have served their subject. It's watchable, certainly, and whenever the cameras turn on the gorillas -- who are the film's true stars -- you feel you're witnessing something truly great. But the movie's small-mindedness squeezes the enthusiasm out of you. Just when you want it to deliver on its promise, it trashes itself.

Gorillas in the Mist: The Adventure of Dian Fossey, at the Circle Uptown, is rated PG-13 and contains adult situations and violence.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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