Jack Couffer | 88 mins | TV | U / G
Living Free is, in many ways, a tale of obsession. I’m certain that wasn’t Joy Adamson’s intention in writing the book, and I don’t think it’s the filmmakers’ intention either, but the facts can still play that way. The Adamsons devote months of their time, give up a promising career, spend all their savings, drive themselves into debt, and are nearly killed several times, all in a frequently-extreme effort to save three delinquent lion cubs who would be put down were it not for their sentimental attachment.
Picking up immediately where Born Free left off — with literally the same shot, in fact — Living Free proceeds to recap the first film, inserting new actors Susan Hampshire and Nigel Davenport into footage from the predecessor. Watched 24 hours after the original, this feels like so much padding, but viewed in isolation — or six years later, as this was first released — it’s probably a useful primer. It also allows a chance to recap some of Born Free’s finer wildlife moments, including the cubs wrecking the house and the marvellous head-butting warthog. I love the head-butting warthog.
The rest of the story moves into What Happened Next territory: Elsa dies, the Adamsons’ obsession with finding and saving her cubs begins. The film skips the book Living Free, adapting threequel Forever Free instead, presumably for dramatic reasons — I imagine Elsa and cubs just living isn’t as much of a Story as her death and subsequent events.
Much of the film again plays like a documentary, particularly the sequences where Joy imagines what the cubs may have been up to during the weeks they were missing. Even after decades of excellent work by the BBC Natural History Unit, producing hundreds of hours of exceptional documentaries, the wildlife photography here is still often stunning. Stand-outs include one of the cubs playing with, and then being attacked by, a snake, or a slow-motion chase sequence which shows the beauty of both the lion and… whatever it’s chasing… (look, I’m no expert.) It may not have the same charm as the first film’s playful antics, but it’s by no means devoid of spectacle.
Living Free isn’t as endearing as Born Free. By the very nature of trying to keep the cubs wild, they’re less relatable than Elsa and consequently we become less attached to them. As you may’ve guessed, I found it more interesting to look on the film as a story of obsession, one that threatens to ruin the Adamsons’ lives, though ultimately it has an upbeat ending.
That said, nothing the film could have told (while sticking to the facts, that is) would rival the real-life tragedies that were to come: the Adamsons eventually grew apart, Joy was murdered by a former employee in 1980, and George was shot by bandits in 1989. It’s a sad end for a pair who, for all their faults, devoted their lives to doing good.