The Last King of Scotland
Director : Kevin Macdonald
Screenplay : Jeremy Brock & Peter Morgan (based on the novel by Giles Foden)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Forest Whitaker (Idi Amin), James McAvoy (Nicholas Garrigan), Kerry Washington (Kay Amin), Gillian Anderson (Sarah Merrit), Simon McBurney (Nigel Stone), David Oyelowo (Dr. Junju), Abby Mukiibi (Masanga), Adam Kotz (Dr. Merrit), Barbara Rafferty (Mrs. Garrigan), David Ashton (Dr. Garriga)
The Last King of Scotland uses a rather tired trope of Western storytelling--the use of a white Western character as a lens through which we can view an exotic culture--but manages to make it not only invigorating, but arguably necessary. The culture into which we are thrust is the small African nation of Uganda in the mid-1970s, which was run by the ruthless, yet frighteningly charming military dictator Idi Amin. In a sense, it would be impossible to be “inside” Amin’s culture because it was a culture of one: himself. Everyone else--his wives, his advisors, and especially the people of Uganda--were perpetually on the outside looking in at Amin’s murderous rule. To really tell the story of Idi Amin, one almost has to look through an outsider’s eyes.
Amin’s story from his own point of view has already been told on film in Barbet Schroder’s fascinating 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada, in which Amin attempted to charm the camera and pass himself off as a benign populist ruler, but instead inadvertently painted a scathing self-portrait of himself as a dangerous narcissist who was running a previously prosperous African nation into the ground. One might imagine a feature film taking the same perspective, but it could never approach Amin’s own deranged and misguided documentary presence.
Instead, we see Amin through the eyes of a fictional Scottish physician named Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy). Young, impulsive, and casually amoral, Garrigan flies off to Uganda after finishing medical school, claiming that he wants to help the Ugandans when in actuality he is running from his successful father’s shadow. Once in Uganda, he works at a mission run by a well-meaning British doctor and his wife (Adam Kotz and Gillian Anderson) before a freak accident brings him into contact with Amin.
Amin takes an immediate liking to the forthright young Scot (Amin proclaims that, if he weren’t Ugandan, he would want to be Scottish, albeit without the red hair) and soon asks Garrigan to be his personal physician. Garrigan at first declines, but he is quickly seduced by Amin’s garrulous charm and power. He is thus swept into Amin’s orbit, but soon finds that it is more of a dangerous tide, drawing him deeper and deeper out into a dark ocean the depths of which he never fathomed. Even as evidence mounts that Amin is a murderous despot, killing off political enemies and anyone else who disagrees with him by the thousands, Garrigan resists the truth until its ugly face is literally thrust right into his own.
Garrigan is thus a complicated character, one you might resist identifying with. Played with naïve, shaggy impetuousness by McAvoy, Garrigan is an inherently selfish central character who stands in as a metonym for all the self-serving people who have ever allowed themselves to become unwitting pawns in what philosopher Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” Garrigan enjoys the perks of being high in Amin’s power hierarchy, especially the attention lavished by Amin himself, and in this sense he brings his own misery on himself (not to mention his implication in the slaughter of thousands, one of whom is killed directly as a result of his meddling). Yet, it is hard not to feel for him once he realizes the error of his ways and tries to escape the increasingly troubled country, even as we recognize that he is still serving first and foremost himself.
The center of the film, however, is held by Forrest Whitaker as Amin. In every sense of the word, Whitaker is huge, dominating every character on screen with either charisma or intimidation, both of which he plays with equal command (he’s the world’s worst manic-depressive in a linebacker’s body). Whitaker channels Amin’s contradictory persona--funny and playful one moment, ruthless the next. He also captures perfectly Amin’s complete lack of self-awareness; at times you feel that he was so good at convincing others that he was benign because he literally believed that he was. He shows with frightening conviction that true monsters don’t often recognize themselves as such.
Director Kevin Macdonald brings his experience as documentary filmmaker to bear on the film, giving us a burnished portrait of Uganda’s descent into hell that is heavy on location photography, handheld jerkiness, and zooms (courtesy of Don Mantle, who shot Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later). He shoots many scenes documentary-style, with the camera roving unsteadily as though the camerman were unsure of what will happen next. This gives the film a sense of urgency, underscoring the unsettled nature of the characters and their increasingly precarious situations.
The Last King of Scotland, which was based on the first novel by British journalist Giles Foden, has its weaknesses, though, especially in the story. I never believed some of its narrative contrivances, including the way Garrigan acts when he first meets Amin, taking the dictator’s gun to kill a wailing cow that has been wounded in an auto accident. I also didn’t buy Garrigan’s affair with Kay (Kerry Washington), one of Amin’s less-favored wives (she had the temerity to bear him a son with epilepsy). Unfortunately, this affair is central the film’s final third and is admittedly well used to generate suspense as Garrigan tries to escape the nightmarish web he has spun for himself. In a sense, then, The Last King of Scotland is a drawn-out morality play, with Garrigan the unthinking hedonist learning hard lessons that the company you keep can have dire consequences.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2006 Fox Searchlight Pictures