The Last Lions -- Film Review

There’s real grrrrrrl power in this haunting portrait of an African lioness. 

Jeremy Iron narrates the documentary about a lioness, filmed and produced by husband-and-wife team Beverly and Dereck Joubert.

Single motherhood is never easy, but for the young lioness at the center of this stirring documentary, there’s danger at every turn. Filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert, longtime chroniclers of Africa’s wildlife, have shaped the Botswana-set saga for maximum dramatic impact, sometimes to a fault. Yet there’s no denying the burnished beauty of their footage, or the intense, and often heartrending, intimacy of the images they’ve captured. Beginning a platform release Feb. 18, The Last Lions joins a number of extreme survival stories — 127 Hours, The Way Back and Sanctum — on the big screen, and offers better-defined characters than some of those live-action features.

As the title suggests, the big cats’ numbers are dwindling; in a mere 50 years, they’ve dropped from 450,000 to 20,000. The filmmakers’ conservation pitch is limited to the doc’s brief framing segments, which indicate, in succinct fashion, the culpability of humans in the animals’ loss of habitat.

For Ma di Tau (Mother of Lions), as the Jouberts call the star of their film, a combination of devastating events pushes her and her cubs to remote Duba Island, in the world’s largest inland delta, where they must vie with buffalo, hyenas and crocodiles. Never far behind is the predatory pride of female lions that stalks the young family like a gang, confidently biding its time.

Especially because the film invites emotional identification, Ma di Tau’s ordeal can be tough viewing (it’s certainly no heartwarming romp for young children). Precious indeed are the moments when mother and cubs can loll and stretch like satiated house cats. Dereck Joubert’s camera catches every tender exchange, every alarmed glance, every twitching whisker. He and his producer wife lived on the island for seven years, and crafted their year-in-the-life story from six years’ worth of material. From the abstract patterns of birds in flight to the harrowing footage of brutally defeated lions, much of it is unforgettable.

But they often push the drama rather than letting the powerful visuals speak for themselves. Jeremy Irons’ mellifluous voiceover narration, though a fine fit, is tinged with foreboding as he prepares the audience for each impending threat. The effective music could have been used more judiciously, particularly the chanting vocals, which serve more as distraction than enhancement. But while the film at times strains for the poetic, it never preaches — de rigueur text-to-help entreaties notwithstanding.

The film provides evidence of hunting and other behaviors — crossing open water, for instance — that defy accepted wisdom concerning lions. But the Jouberts leave such information to the production notes (and a forthcoming book), focusing the doc itself on a character-driven drama that offers a number of twists, not least the unlikely alliance that closes the film on a hopeful note.

By showcasing individuals you get to know and care about, the film makes its case that their species’ extinction would leave the world bereft. The Last Lions is an urgent dispatch from a wild and endangered landscape.

 

Opens: Friday, Feb. 18 (National Geographic Entertainment)
A National Geographic Entertainment presentation in association with Wildlife Films
Narrator: Jeremy Irons
Writer-director: Dereck Joubert
Producers: Beverly and Dereck Joubert, Lisa Truitt, Chris Miller
Executive producers: Tim Kelly, David Beal, Daniel Battsek, Adam Leipzig
Director of photography: Dereck Joubert
Music: Alex Wurman
Editor: Susan Scott
MPAA rating: PG, 88 minutes

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