Call me a typically history-ignorant American, but before watching “The Last King of Scotland” I didn’t know that much about Idi Amin‘s reign of terror as Uganda’s dictator during the 1970s. I don’t pretend to be proud of such an oversight — nevertheless, that lack of knowledge worked to this viewer’s benefit in experiencing the gripping paranoia of Kevin MacDonald‘s political thriller. What starts out as an awkward, wide-eyed bildungsroman and travelogue transforms (through more untamed verve than directorial precision) into a frantic, disorienting tragedy about the seduction of power, one that would make proud this film’s not-so-unlikely pair of guardian angels, Joseph Conrad and Oliver Stone.
The high drama that “The Last King of Scotland” eventually reaches is barely inchoate during the first reel, in which a smugly attractive young Scottish man, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), decides straight out of medical school to offer his skills and services to the rural poor in Uganda. So, we get a young man’s initial naivete and excitement in a foreign land, along with all the embarrassing cliches: Nicholas bedding a beautiful Ugandan woman within five minutes of screen time; Nicholas laughing and playing soccer with the local children; Nicholas trying for an affair with a fellow doctor’s wife (Gillian Anderson). Already the style is incongruous with the film’s subject matter–each shot has either the camera or the zoom lens moving with the impatience and purpose of a wounded mosquito, and entire sequences seem to have been assembled on a chopping block. Such a distracting aesthetic smacks of the sort of desperation to which a film resorts when distrustful of its own worth.
But then things start falling into place, at least cinematically, when Nicholas, called to the scene of an automobile accident, is asked to help President Idi Amin’s sprained hand. Amin (Forest Whitaker) takes to the young man’s brash honesty and decisiveness, and soon invites him to become his own personal physician. Nicholas accepts, leaving behind his humanitarian ideals to attend photo ops and swimming pool parties as part of the president’s practically rock-star lifestyle, even sitting in at important meetings as the leader’s “closest advisor.” Rather than an immediate crisis of conscience, the film’s major conflict seems like it might come in the form of the shady British agents hanging around the fringes of Amin’s cabinet, perhaps looking to oust the president because of his steadfast refusal to relinquish Ugandan independence. Or perhaps in the form of corrupt former ruler Milton Obote, still with a loyal following that’s trying to reinstall him to power by intermittently battling government forces. Something is surely brewing, but in the end the eye of the storm is watching from within the Amin regime itself. A critical moment occurs when Nicholas spots Amin’s health minister in conference with a white man. Nicholas relays the sketchy scene to Amin and–poof!–the poor guy, later proved innocent, has disappeared. Alas, Amin’s paranoia, extravagant living, and delusions of grandeur (the title comes from one of the many titles he accorded to himself) have overtaken any positive leadership potential.
Will anything be given away by mentioning that Nicholas uncovers more and more of Amin’s crimes, begins to recognize his own complicity, and must think of a way to escape the horror? “The Last King of Scotland” ultimately triumphs over middlebrowhood for two reasons. One, which is probably old news by now, is the strength of the performances, most notably Whitaker’s alternating currents of fun-loving gentle giant and ferociously demented tyrant. Additionally MacDonald brings an invigorating approach to his material (adapted from Giles Foden‘s novel by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock): the rapid-fire, often stream-of-conscious editing, the rough-hewn montage sequences (one of which might be the strangest of the year–after discovering one of the president’s mutilated victims, Nicholas visits Amin and his cronies zoning out to a screening of “Deep Throat.” Amin asks, with perfect sincerity, whether it’s anatomically possible for a woman to have a clitoris there?), and the washed-out vintage “Seventies”-esque cinematography perfectly capture the heat-damaged fear and loathing of Nicholas’s and Uganda’s nightmare. Whether anything but the most abstract lessons on the nature of evil and susceptibility gets imparted in the rush of chaos and death is indeed up for debate, but “The Last King of Scotland” proves that MacDonald has the talent to one day bring his eye for action and atmosphere to something of more historical complexity.
By Keith Uhlich
Because the world needed a Tony Scott-ish remake of “The Constant Gardner,” we now find in our presence Kevin MacDonald’s “The Last King of Scotland.” A fictionalized examination of Ugandan president Idi Amin’s gruesome eight-year regime, “Last King” indulges in the lazy-narrative fallback of the white surrogate (in this case James McAvoy’s fresh-faced asshole of a Scottish doctor) to smooth audience entryway into a supposedly unknowable and exotic locale. Deepest, darkest Africa never looked so… black (!), and MacDonald (in collaboration with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle) doesn’t want you to forget it. The film’s burnished, orange-hued palette (heavy on the face-obscuring backlight) effectively obliterates identity; save for the standout complexion of our pale and pasty protagonist, we’re suddenly back in the racist no-man’s-land of eyes and teeth. Everywhere our baby Doc goes is another stop on an ooga-booga theme park ride version of history (slap Peter Jackson‘s name on it and call it “King Kong” — I defy you to tell me the difference). And why, one may ask, does our baby doc get involved with Amin in the first place? Well for the simple and resolutely ridiculous fact that Idi’s got da bling: fast cars, loose women, even a private bedroom screening (after Uganda’s political situation has gone quite literally to hell) of the clit-in-the-gullet classic “Deep Throat.” In a performance over which Oscar voters will no doubt drool, Whitaker spits and scowls like a KKK bogeyman. And by the time Idi’s minions go all “Hellraiser” on our baby doc’s fragile, freckled skin, it’s difficult not to reflect on the pseudo-profundities of “Last King”‘s sole Aesop moral, directed at each and every trust-fund Caucasian: Boys, if a sun-baked Gillian Anderson rebuffs your advances, don’t go running to the big, bad black man for solace.
By Nicolas Rapold
Anyone who cringed through “One Day in September“‘s orgiastic montage of terrorist corpses scored to a Deep Purple rock-out could guess how Kevin Macdonald might screw up “The Last King of Scotland.” A filmmaker who feels the need to jazz up a hijacking may well feel that a paranoid genocidal lunatic isn’t quite enough to hold our bovine attentions. And so we get the pandering political thriller that unceremoniously concludes “Last King” (once it’s done riffing on the chic editing and coppery reds of “The Constant Gardener”). Little Nicholas Garrigan’s wide-eyed hayride through Idi Amin’s atrocities (and his own, gasp, moral compromises) pointlessly restages Western political naivete while evincing a generic fascination with homicidal paranoia. As the film has all the shape of an expat bar contest of gruesome anecdotes, it becomes clear that Macdonald has little to say about the material. Astonishingly uninterested in the hearts and minds of Amin’s besieged countrymen, and relying on Forest Whitaker’s almost disconcerting charisma, Macdonald accomplishes the perverse: making the dictator the sole compelling figure.
[Nicolas Rapold is a Reverse Shot staff writer, the assistant editor of Film Comment, the film editor of Stop Smiling, and a regular contributor to the New York Sun. ]