September 26, 1988 12:00 PM

Handed the best and boldest role of her career, Sigoumey Weaver plays it like an actress possessed. She is incandescent as Dian Fossey, the Kentuckian sent to the rain forests of Rwanda in 1966 by Dr. Louis Leakey to take a census of the endangered African mountain gorillas. Her job grew into the mission she recounted in a 1983 autobiography, Gorillas in the Mist, after she had devoted her life to saving these primates from extinction. Fossey, who virtually abandoned the outside world for her crusade, was slain in 1985. Though a Rwandan court convicted her American research assistant in absentia, there is virtually no evidence that he killed her—and many reasons to suspect others. Fossey offended a multitude, among them international traders who captured baby gorillas for sale to zoos and Batwa tribesmen who poached gorillas to sell their heads and hands as souvenirs. When screenwriter Anna Hamilton (Mask) Phelan and director Michael (Coal Miner’s Daughter) Apted stick to Fossey’s work, their film has the vivid ring of truth. It’s a pity that the thud of Hollywood convention can also be heard. Too much time is frittered away on Fossey’s brief affair with married National Geographic photographer Bob Campbell, whose documentary films of Fossey helped build public support. Though ably acted by Bryan (Cocktail) Brown, Campbell—who served as a consultant on the film—is reduced to consort status. Perhaps Campbell did drag a tub up the rugged Virunga Mountains so he and Dian could bathe together by firelight après sex and watch his films on her exploits, but this romantic foolishness plays like so much bushwah in the bush. Happily, Weaver’s enthralling scenes with the gorillas—shot in Rwanda with many of the same animals Fossey had studied—more than compensate. Weaver shows how Fossey’s protectiveness grew into fury at seeing these animals slaughtered. She makes no attempt to disguise Fossey’s dark, demented side. Fossey would wear fright masks, make death threats and even burn down native huts to scare off poachers. She got the job done, damn the consequences. This film, magnificent and moving, does something far more compelling than excuse or canonize Fossey. It does her justice. (PG-13)

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