Gorillas in the Mist tells the story of conservationist Dian Fossey, yielded actress Sigourney Weaver a Best Actress nomination, and tells a unique and thought-provoking story about a real woman and the empowerment she found in the wilds of Africa. At times heartbreaking and frustrating, here’s a standout depiction – so much as their can be with cinema – showing a strong woman coming into her own.
In the late-1960s Dian Fossey (Weaver) traveled to Africa to study the population of mountain gorillas. During her several years studying them, the elusive gorillas become her closest companions, their lives constantly in peril by poachers.
Director Michael Apted and crew kick things off by emphasizing this as the story of a woman coming up against a male patriarchal society. When Dian Fossey first meets the famed Louis Leakey (Iain Cuthbertson), she has to fight for his attention amongst other men taking his photo and seeking interviews. To them, Fossey is a starstruck woman not to be taken seriously. It’s possible that not even Leakey takes this physical therapist turned conservationist seriously. Fossey, and Weaver herself, have to prove the audience and male characters wrong, which she does by going full bore into her work despite knowing nothing more than what she’s read. Fossey was a woman who lived by experience, and the audience relates to her struggles while simultaneously thinking she’s crazy for leaving her life behind to live in the jungles of Africa with a bunch of gorillas.
The mountain gorillas have captivated audiences for years, particularly last year with the Oscar-nominated documentary, Virunga (which Fossey was associated with during her tenure in Africa). Much of the movie revolves around Fossey’s relationship and integration within a group of mountain gorillas, so Apted tried his hardest to use real gorillas when possible. Those gorillas that were unable to work with Weaver, particularly the silverback named Digit, were created with the help of special effects legend Rick Baker. IMDB says it’s evident which gorillas are actors in suits and which aren’t, but I have to say the effects are flawless! Weaver’s Fossey approaches the apes with a mix of wonderment, respect, and caution, enhancing the mystique of the apes; the audience can’t predict their behavior as much as Fossey can, so it allows a certain latitude in believing they’re real. Her interactions with Digit are especially nuanced, a battle of wills, each unwilling to give ground to each other until they bitter end. All their progress and trust together creates a genuine bond that’s ripped to shreds when Digit is viciously murdered by poachers.
By the end, both the apes and Fossey are victims, regardless of species. Throughout their journey of trust, their lives become fleshed out, and human, in a sense. The fact that Fossey, a woman living alone and the victim of a crime that, today, remains unsolved, is something that resonates with women today. You don’t have to live in the jungle to be the victim of a crime, and that stands out here. None of this would be sold as such without Weaver’s indomitable performance. Weaver shows her range and tenacity in the role of Dian Fossey, refusing to succumb to the ill-advised “feminizing” of the character. (It’s not enough to have her be a strong woman, the script has to remind us that Fossey won’t travel without her makeup and hair dryer…women, amiright?) The addition of a romance between her and National Geographic photographer, Bob Campbell (Bryan Brown) could have played tritely, but her sending him away for his lack of commitment to the apes is telling; this is her desire and dream, why should she compromise it when he isn’t willing?
The third act sees Fossey “go off the deep end” after Digit’s death. She becomes zealously committed to stopping poaching, and it leads to an interesting examination of the film. Would this be perceived as crazy if she were a man? She becomes a Captain Ahab figure, determined to save her apes at all cost – and, ultimately, at the cost of her life. The lazy research students she gets don’t help matters, leaving the audience to side with Fossey even though the script doesn’t want you to. The gender questions regarding “bossy” women plays out here, and in 1988, with the rise of women in the workplace, maybe the film is trying to play that up; for 2015, she becomes a martyr for her cause.
Gorillas in the Mist is a vibrant examination of one woman’s passion for a cause. Sigourney Weaver more than earned her nomination and Baker’s effects should have been nominated.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.