The Last Lions is an intensely up-close look at the life of a lioness named Ma di Tau and her cubs. The footage captured by Dereck and Beverly Joubert is fascinating, as much for its intimacy as, seemingly, its daring.
The flood of bogus "reality" TV has cheapened the value we place in the kind of carefully, even lovingly, filmed nature films that are the hallmark of National Geographic, which produced The Last Lions, is noted for.
The Jouberts spent eight years living on the spit of land known as Duba Island in Botswana, where the lions of this film make their home. So they probably have hundreds of hours of other lions -- but used this particular story to point up the animals' plight.
The actual drama of the piece is stark: that lions, which once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, have been reduced in the wild to about 20,000. One reason: Ma di Tau and her mate find their hunting ground invaded by an outside pride of lions, driven further inland by the encroachment of man on their hunting grounds. The female and her mate fight for their lives -- but only she emerges alive. And she has three cubs she must care for as well.
The film follows as she moves to the small island, with water to separate her from her enemies. Her co-inhabitants on the island? A herd of water buffalo. So she must figure out how to hunt water buffalo successfully to feed her cubs and keep them alive.
There is more -- some serious lion politics, and a life-and-death struggle with the same pride to protect her cubs. But nature is cruel and not all cubs in the wild -- even lion cubs -- live to adulthood without becoming someone else's meal.
The footage -- in close-up and in what looks like digital slow-motion -- is right in our face. But then, so is the narration, which not only explains the behavior of Ma di Tau but tells us what she's thinking and feeling. Her inner life is narrated by Jeremy Irons, who sounds slightly smug at times, condescending at others. That may be the narration itself, however, which imputes human values to the consciousness of wild animals.
Still, The Last Lions is amazing to look at, offering everything but the smell, it would seem. And the message is a disturbing one: that lions are forced to participate in the decimation of their own numbers, as humans shrink the amount of territory wild animals can still call home.