Like 2006’s other great Oscar contender The Queen, The Last King of Scotland is a magnificent two-person display of acting talent. In The Queen, Helen Mirren shows off her mad acting skills as the imperious Queen Elizabeth, frighteningly stoic in the wake of Princess Diana’s death. She’s the odds-on fave to win an Academy Award for Best Actress. But it’s the work of Michael Sheen as the empathetic man of the people Tony Blair which gives The Queen its spark of life. Rubbing against each other like flint and steel, Mirren and Sheen form a slow-building, ultimately incandescent partnership.
The same can be said of The Last King of Scotland. Forest Whitaker, breaking out of his mold as “everybody’s favorite supporting actor,” does an incredible job breathing life into Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. He’s got a good shot at an Oscar as well. But his performance wouldn’t work if not for the less glamorous efforts of James McAvoy (Chronicles of Narnia) as Nicholas Garrigan, the Scottish doctor seduced into Amin’s ’70s-era inner sanctum.
If, for example, Idi Amin were just an insane cannibalistic serial killer, how did he control a notoriously unstable African nation for eight years? Why was he hailed as a hero and a liberator in Uganda? Why did the international community embrace him?
The Last King of Scotland portrays Amin as he most likely was: charming, charismatic, strong-willed and totally barking mad. We see him here through the eyes of McAvoy’s Nicholas Garrigan, an adventurous young doctor who brushes off his conservative father’s private practice dreams for a trip to war-torn Africa. There, assisting in a roadside accident, he catches the eye of recent coup leader Idi Amin. Amin immediately installs Garrigan as his personal physician. (The film takes a few liberties with history, cobbling Garrigan together from several real-life inspirations.)
Once entrenched in Amin’s inner circle, Garrigan witnesses firsthand the confusing and mercurial nature of the African leader. (Amin did, at one point, declare himself “Last King of Scotland” as well as “Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea.”) Gracious and joking one moment, Whitaker’s Amin can turn on a dime, becoming paranoid and vindictive the next.
The film plays out a bit like a classic gangster saga. Not unlike the protagonists of such films as Rush and Donnie Brasco, Garrigan finds himself seduced into Amin’s dangerous, high-powered, big-money lifestyle. Not as innocent or sympathetic as he might seem at first, Garrigan and his descent into this heady world of sports cars, drugs, prostitutes and state dinners is believably presented.
Things do get questionable later on when Garrigan falls for and begins an affair with one of Amin’s wives (Ray’s Kerry Washington). This one strains at the bounds of historical accuracy. I don’t care how much of a devil-may-care attitude you’ve got--nobody but nobody would jump into bed so easily with the wife of a guy who slaughtered (by some estimates) 500,000 people. Seriously, nobody’s that horny.
That one “what the hell were you thinking?” moment threatens to derail The Last King of Scotland’s thoughtfully constructed narrative. From there on out, the film concentrates less on Amin and more on Garrigan and his attempts to get the hell out of Dodge. At this point, sympathy for Garrigan has largely eroded, and it’s a ticking clock race against time to escape the slaughter that’s about to erupt with Amin’s fall. It’s still exciting, but not as compelling as the film’s earlier lesson in absolute power corrupting absolutely.
Director Kevin Macdonald’s previous efforts have been in the field of documentaries (One Day in September, A Brief History of Errol Morris, Touching the Void). If that gives him a slightly less accurate radar when it comes to convincing fictional drama, it does at least ensure his sense of veracity spills over into this project. Bits of history--from the 1976 raid on Entebbe to the release of Deep Throat--are strung throughout, giving the film a solid temporal context. The film was also shot on location in Uganda, and that adds quite a bit to the look and feel of it all. Still, it’s the one-on-one moments between Whitaker and McAvoy that make The Last King of Scotland such a memorable history lesson.
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