REVIEW: The Last King of Scotland [2006]

“Do you have monkeys in Scotland?”

What happens when a precocious young doctor gets a feeling of claustrophobia at home and decides to travel the world to bring help while having fun in the process? Kevin Macdonald’s The Last King of Scotland tries to show us the answers in the midst of Idi Amin’s rise to power in Uganda. While not a biopic, the film is also not a narrative fiction of any real weight. Instead this is a tale of a monster through the eyes of someone whose innocence thought what was happening was for the good of all until it was too late to turn back. Idi Amin is not the star of the show—although he does steal virtually every scene he’s in—it’s the young doctor’s evolution at the hands of the viciousness he was sheltered from in his childhood that drives the plot. When one is not quite world weary and still under the impression that they are invincible to atrocity, they can easily be duped into following what they see up close rather than what is happening around them.

James McAvoy does a wonderful job as the young doctor going to Uganda to lend his assistance and find some adventure along the way. He is rebelling against the life he should be leading in Scotland as a family doctor at the side of his father. That is not the life he wants to be living so soon in his career and thus spins the globe to find his next destination. While in the African country, he takes part in the hard job of being one of two doctors trying to help all the unfortunate poor of the nation. Upon a chance meeting with the new president, General Amin, he is given the opportunity to become the man’s personal physician. McAvoy is fantastic at showing the utter happiness at being looked upon as someone who can help a nation by this seemingly great man. He begins to enjoy his post, lives with all perks available to him, (I loved the transition from utter squalor of the countryside to the wealth of urban areas in the capital, as I never expected to see that upper crust side to the African scenery here), and becomes the leader’s closest advisor on all matters whether or not medically pertinent. It is his great job during the high times that really show how good of an actor he is once the lid is lifted to reveal all the atrocities that have been happening right under his nose. What once began as a job of missionary work becomes a trial to see if he can stay alive long enough to leave the country while his friend and boss becomes more and more unstable in his sightline, characteristics he hid so effectively during the courtship process of recruiting his skills.

No matter how good McAvoy is, though, he is no match for Forest Whitaker’s powerhouse performance as the larger-than-life Amin. Sure there is a lot of talk going around that the Scot is the real star here with the general a supporting player, (as far as awards go), however, Whitaker is on screen for a good three quarters of the film and definitely deserves to be considered in the Best Actor categories. Just because the film does not necessarily revolve around his character, he is still a co-star before being relegated a supporter. I have always been a Whitaker fan, from his small roles like that in Fast Times, to measured dramatic perfection in season 5 of “The Shield,” to the more unique roles like Ghost Dog. Nothing he has done, though, can prepare you for the magic he brings to the screen here. You get every side of this monster from his compassion for the people of Uganda—albeit those that are on his side—the utter charm and charisma that was used to get not only those around him as friends but also the British government to support his coup of the nation, to the animosity that could brim to the surface without the slightest provocation. Watching him go from happy-go-lucky to maniacal rants of insane paranoia, cutting short even those he just finished praising, is amazing. The smile could charm even the most skeptical cynic, but I think what someone says in the movie is true; he is a child and that is what makes him so scary.

Sure these two performances make the movie a joy to watch, but the film itself somewhat lacks in substance. Through the middle of the film, we see the conflict bubbling to the surface many times; yet while being different, serve to give the same context to the viewers. All this monotony is eventually redeemed at the conclusion. I truly will say that I never expected what happened. Yes, I figured what transpired would, but I didn’t think it would go down quite the way it did. I applaud Macdonald for never shying away from the true impetus of this film; he brought to the table a story of a monster disguised as a great man and showed how it all could unravel without flinching. His use of grainy camerawork adds to the documentary-like style and the close-ups of actors covered in the sweat and dirt of Africa showed the realism and truth of the place. He was also able to get great performances from all his supporting cast, from the extras playing regular townsfolk and army men, the Ugandans surrounding Amin, (especially David Oyelowo as another doctor), a nice show of talent from usual standard-fare actress Kerry Washington, and a surprisingly real and emotively bottled representation of a woman who trapped herself into the life she led by Gillian Anderson. All in all, this film is a must see for the actors alone, yet also has a riveting story to watch progress until its inevitable conclusion.

The Last King of Scotland 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

photography:
[1] From left: James McAvoy and Forest Whitaker in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND. Photo Credit: Neil Davidson
[2] James McAvoy and Gillian Anderson in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND.

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