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TV Reviews : TNT’s ‘Last Elephant’ Has Wrenching Effect

Ivory ornaments are slaughtered elephants. That’s the theme--and the wrenching visual impact--of the strongly cast fictional film, “The Last Elephant” (TNT cable today at 5 p.m., 7 p.m., 9 p.m. and 11 p.m., with encore broadcasts Tuesday and next weekend).

Shot in Nairobi and the wildlife bush country of Kenya, with Joseph Sargent directing a cast featuring John Lithgow, Isabella Rossellini and James Earl Jones, the production is the National Audubon Society’s first effort to expand its environmental message beyond the documentary format.

As an entertainment, with murderous poachers, corrupt ivory traffickers and a cynical, alcoholic adventure novelist (Lithgow) who finds mystery and purpose in Africa, “The Last Elephant” is a radical departure for Audubon Society Productions.

And a smart leap: You won’t watch the staged but realistic massacre of a herd of elephants by ax-wielding, AK-47-bearing poachers from neighboring Somalia and Burundi and easily slip on ivory jewelry or feel the same way about the ivories on a piano.

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The movie doesn’t pound you with facts, but there’s an urgency here: bloody mutilation has cut the African elephant population in half in the last decade and in Kenya the number of elephants has plummeted from 70,000 to 18,000.

In Richard Guttman and Bill Bozzone’s script, from a story by Bradley T. Winter, the dialogue is brushed with telling images. “If man allows the beast to die, man’s spirit will die of loneliness” becomes an unusually poignant line because it’s translated from Swahili and uttered by an aging Masai tribal chief (not an actor).

Elsewhere, the writers deftly dramatize thematic points. Jones, playing a Nairobi police inspector, has such a great voice that he can, of course, make any line of dialogue tremble. Gazing at an elephant family of sisters, grandmothers, babies, he asks, “When will they learn to distrust us?” Rossellini’s field researcher remarks more bluntly, “Elephants are cursed fugitives in their own territory.”

Forgetting the story’s conventional, action-filled, romance-filled ending, the film’s import is that it recalls arguably the greatest narrative prose ever written about the elephant (and collapsing colonial empires): George Orwell’s unforgettable autobiographical essay (from his Burmese days), “Shooting the Elephant.”

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