The Last King of Scotland Review
'The Last King of Scotland' was released in 2007 and was directed by Kevin MacDonald. The movie charts the rise and ultimate demise of infamous Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who slaughtered thousands of his countrymen during his time in power. This is the first time that the life of Amin has been committed to celluloid and MacDonald, who has previously tackled “difficult” source material with aplomb (ala 'Touching the Void'), seems capable of pulling off the task. The script is based on the book of the same name by Giles Foden, which was published in 1998 and was generally well received. The source material revolves around a fictitious Scottish doctor who becomes Amin's closet advisor.
In this movie, the Scottish doctor is played by up and coming young actor James McAvoy. Most famous for his cheeky chappy turn in 'Shameless', some may also recognise McEvoy as Mr. Tumnus from 'The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe'. I found McAvoy an unusual choice for the co-lead role, especially considering that Amin is played by acting powerhouse Forest Whitaker ('Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai'). Gillian Anderson also pops up for a short period of time playing an almost cameo role. The majority of the cast are relative unknowns, with the two main players commanding the lion's share of on screen time.
The movie opens with the newly graduated Dr. Nicolas Garrigan deciding that he will leave the confines of Scotland and travel to the most exotic place he can imagine (by way of spinning a globe and blindly choosing). After a few disregarded destinations, the sunny location of Uganda is selected as the country where the young Scot will apply his trade for the greater good of mankind. Upon his arrival, Garrigan's expectations for a fun and lively holiday destination are not met but he is none the less absorbed into his work with the locals, who are desperately in need of modern medical practices; the local witch doctor attends to the majority of the population of the small village where he is based.
Immersing himself in the spirit of the Ugandan people, Garrigan attends a ceremony in the village to welcome the newly elected president, Idi Amin. Warming to their new leader's enamouring speech regarding the prosperous future his people can look forward to, Garrigan too is drawn into the excitement and propaganda. A car accident following the rally leaves Amin seeking “urgent” medical attention and it's Garrigan who rushes to his aid. Impressed with the fearless Scots treatment of both his sprained wrist and the semi-dead cow with which the presidential car collided, Amin invites Garrigan to become his personal physician. Initially refusing the offer, the persuasive Amin soon changes the good doctor's mind and Garrigan is brought deep into the inner circle of the president's political cabinet. It's not long before the green and innocent Garrigan realises that Amin is uncontrollably unbalanced and paranoid but by then it's too late to simply walk away.
At first I thought that this was a very strange choice for a UK based Film Four production but when the closing credits rolled I could clearly see the ties between Amin/Uganda and Britain. Amin served for years in the British Army and became one of their highest ranking generals and a licensed killing machine. Looking to control the unpredictable Ugandan government, the British Army placed Armin in the highest possible position in the Ugandan army, which gave him the power to seize control by way of a political coup. British government representatives watched in the wings and monitored Amin's progression to leader of a nation in turmoil (the previous president was fond of embezzling large sums of cash). Unfortunately, psychological screening was not in place in 1971 (when Amin came to power) and by 1978 his deep paranoia and unbalanced personality had led to the death of 300 000 Ugandans, beginning with the casual slaughter of the majority of his cabinet ministers. The pawn which was Amin slowly transformed into a monstrous tyrant, with reputed dealings in black magic and cannibalism. By 1979 he was exiled to Saudi Arabia, where he died in 2003. Amin was a fan of the Scottish warriors and liked their rebellious nature and pomp and parade. He even sent some of his soldiers to Dundee when he was in power to learn how to play the bagpipes! He proclaimed that he would liberate Scotland, promoted Scottish generals in his army and gave himself the title of “Last King of Scotland” (just to explain where the title of the movie originates!).
The reason that this movie received such critical acclaim was a direct result of Whitaker's outstanding performance. I've never really been a massive fan of this actor's work and have found the majority of his performances somewhat ho-hum and repetitive. His performance in this movie simply blew me away. Wearing a pot-belly prosthesis for the duration, the enormous (and perpetually sweaty) Whitaker prowls through every scene, emanating danger and humour in one deadly packet. When he makes a joke his eyes light up in the most marvellous manner, as if he is just realising what a funny statement he has made. His body language and accent are impeccable and he really captures to perfection the charm and charisma which made Amin such an attractive character and leader. The madness he projects in the closing stages of the movie is stunning and he brings the larger than life character of Amin to life on so many levels. I believe that Amin's first incarnation on the big screen will not be topped. McAvoy is pretty good in his role playing the good doctor Garrigan but the character is a little too close to his cheeky ladies man character in 'Shameless' for my liking. That being said, he does fare well here and no doubt his previous run-ins with Frank Gallagher et. al. earned him a shot at this role. I'm also pleased to report that his Scottish accent is more than passable. The collection of secondary characters and extras complement the two central performances and all deliver their lines to perfection with no instances of over exuberance or ham.
McDonald certainly adds a lot of visual flair to the production and keeps things moving along at a very satisfying pace. He uses plenty of different camera angles and employs various filers to accentuate the African countryside (I'm not too sure if this is the correct term!) and surprisingly modern capitol cities. He builds an undertone of menace and excitement, which climaxes at the close of the movie, always keeping Ugandan military weapons in shot to remind viewers of the dangerous nature of Garrigan's seemingly carefree employment under Amin's regime. The plot is interesting and revolves around the fictitious character of Garrigan as he initially enjoys the high life, good times and loose women that are part and parcel of being the president's best buddy. However, the sinister nature of Amin's personal and political life soon become obvious as ministers start to disappear and the ogreish dictator's mind begins to slowly unravel. Drawn to Amin's manipulative personality like a doomed moth to a flame, Garrigan cannot escape the president's employment and he begins to look to more desperate measures to escape the political prison wherein he resides. The movie rapidly transitions from a light-hearted (almost) drama to a despairing nightmare, as Amin's true colours shine through and Garrigan falls from grace. There's a horrific scene (in the morgue), which I won't spoil, that really is one of the most shocking scenes I have seen in a long time. Incidentally, this scene is not based on historic fact but this does not detract from its impact in the movie in any way. Taking on such a script was, on reflection, a major leap for McDonald and he certainly does the source material and the unforgettable character of Amin justice here.
I have had plans to watch 'Last King' for the last two years but, like 'Blood Diamond', I have simply not had time. I am delighted that I have experienced this movie on Blu-ray and rate it highly. The characterisation of Amin alone is worth the purchase and the support from McAvoy and the direction from McDonald form a very complete package. My only complaint is that some portions of the movie seem a little contrived. For example, the inclusion of Gillian Anderson's character is wholly unnecessary and while it does serve to expose Garrigan's ladies man persona early on (and the gravity of his situation near the close of the movie), these aspects could have been achieved in a more relevant manner. I suppose that McDonald was remaining faithful to the source material but this aspect just felt like filler to this humble reviewer. I was also slightly amused at the choice of score during the closing scene of the movie. I obviously won't describe to avoid spoilers but I felt that the “flight” theme was more suited to a movie such as 'The Dark Knight' rather than this. I also didn't quite understand the director's choice to shoot Amin from the neck down in a couple of the scenes; this just didn't make any sense to me whatsoever. That being said this is a very worthwhile movie and this reviewer is ashamed that he has not seen it sooner. Highly recommended.