McKenna and Elsa are a Joy to Watch
"Born Free" is the movie based on the true story of Joy Adamson and her life with lions which became a best selling book "Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds". It is a rather charming movie as we watch Joy and her husband George, played by Virginia McKenna and real life husband Bill Travers, bond with a lion cub which they call Elsa and bring it up till the time comes when the adult lioness has to go back to the wild, a mission not so simple as you would expect. And as such "Born Free" is a pleasure to watch with a blend of emotional drama with great insights into the world of wild animals in Kenya. But to be honest "Born Free" the movie is not so memorable for this delightful story but for the music and song which it won 2 Academy Awards for.
When Kenyan gamekeeper George Adamson (Bill Travers - Ring of Bright Water) has to kill a man eating lion he's also forced to kill the lion's partner at the same time leaving 3 orphan lion cubs. Rather than leaving these cubs to die he takes them home to his wife Joy (Virginia McKenna - Carve Her Name with Pride) to try and help raise. After a few issues Joy and George manage to raise and 3 cubs and whilst 2 are sent to a zoo they keep one called Elsa which Joy has grown close to. Becoming one of the family Elsa goes everywhere with Joy and George but when the time comes for the now adult lioness to be returned to the wild it becomes a problem. Not only is Joy emotionally close to Elsa but Elsa is so tame that she has no idea how to survive as a wild cat.
As "Born Free" is based upon Joy Adamson's own book it does have an almost journal style to it with diary like narration from Joy as to what is going on. That is not a criticism as it works and helps explain why George and Joy were in Kenya and the various events as they unfold, helping to explain with ease the occasional jump in the timeline as Elsa goes from being a playful club to an adult lioness. And at the same time it manages to assist in delivering the emotion as we hear how Joy felt at various points such as the strain of trying to release Elsa back to the wild after she had become so tame, a member of the family.
Aside from the interjected narrative the story actually flows quite nicely as we watch George return home with 3 lion cubs after having to shoot both the parents. And whilst it may seem almost stereotypical watching these three lion cubs become playful pets it's a joy to watch especially as all 3 of these cubs are adorably cute. But the heart of the story is the bond which forms between Joy and Elsa as the lion cub becomes the third member of their family. You really get a sense of the closeness which Joy formed with Elsa and when in the second half of the movie it becomes imperative that Elsa learns to live like a wild animal the emotional strain feels very real.
All of which means that whilst a lovely storyline it is not the most exciting when it comes to drama. When George becomes ill from Malaria it is not so much skipped over but not truly focussed upon nor is the trip all 3 of them take to a coastal town where George has to kill another lion. It means that rather than be a movie about excitement, which it could easily have been, it is a movie which explores emotions and the bond between Joy and Elsa.
What does make it all the more spectacular and memorable is the stunning musical score by John Barry which thanks to the famous title song won 2 Academy awards. The whole musical score is so expressive it manages to find the right rhythm to highlight the wilderness yet then express the playful ness of Elsa as well as the deep emotional connection between Joy and Elsa. It is this marvellous musical score combined with some wonderful cinematography which captures the amazing wilderness which engrains "Born Free" into your mind.
Although having said that, the performances of husband and wife Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna as George and Joy Adamson is a pleasure to watch. With so much of "Born Free" focussing on the bond between Joy and Elsa, Virginia McKenna is very much at the centre of almost every scene and you get a real sense that she bonded with the various lions just as much as Joy did and in doing so it makes it feel all so real. When the time comes for Joy to try and let Elsa go the emotion which Virginia McKenna delivers is staggering making it truly heart wrenching. And when Virginia McKenna isn't delivering emotion Bill Travers shows his great ability for light hearted humour as George plays with Elsa, or should that be Elsa being mischievous around him.
What this all boils down to is that "Born Free" is a wonderful movie where all the components come together to make it work. The storyline is good and with the acting of Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna the emotional side of it comes alive. But it is the wonderful musical score and some great cinematography which helps make "Born Free" a movie which stays with you long after you've finished watching it.