The Last King of Scotland. Forest Whitaker, James
McAvoy, Kerry Washington, and Gillian Anderson star in a film
written by Jeremy Brock, Peter Morgan, and Joe Penhall, based on
the novel by Giles Foden, and directed by Kevin Macdonald.
Reviewed by Josef Woodard
How best to tell the story of a known
tyrant? In the German film The Downfall, the bunker-eye view of
Hitler’s final days comes replete with both mania and touches of
tenderness. In the narrative approach adopted by The Last King of
Scotland, we are cleverly led into the twisted mind of Ugandan
despot Idi Amin through a side door. What we now know about Amin’s
dark, mass murderous legacy — leaving more than 300,000 Ugandans
dead during his ’70s reign of terror — is only slowly revealed,
through the perspective of a Scottish doctor. In both films, the
humanity, and even vulnerability, of these demons are explored, the
better to damn their actions in power.
Our hapless protagonist is a young, idealistic doctor, Nicholas
Garrigan (James McAvoy), who chafes at the prospect of a quiet life
and heads to Uganda. Plans to be of use on the ground at a clinic
are interrupted by an invitation to be the personal doctor of the
volatile Amin (Forest Whitaker, in possibly his finest role), as
he’s rising to power.
Even young Nicholas validates the “firm hand” philosophy of rule
in Africa, at one point countering a detractor by saying, “In
Africa, fighting violence with violence is the only thing that
works.” Of course, he has no idea of the magnitude of violence and
evil his boss is capable of, or how intimately he will be
implicated in Amin’s machinery of brutality. For sensual relief,
Nicholas is drawn into liaisons and would-be liaisons with Gillian
Anderson and Kerry Washington, and slides into the spirit of
hedonistic excess surrounding the “last king of Scotland” (as Amin
calls himself, aligning with an anti-British sentiment).
Sparing doses of ultra-violence are necessary in telling the
Amin story, but the most riveting aspects of the film are more
psychological, revolving around the charismatic madman Amin, who
has squelched his own humanity and humble villager beginnings in
pursuit of a bullying, fear-fueled reign. This film fails to reach
the heights of empathy and cinematic power of Hotel Rwanda or Black
Hawk Down, but it does direct our attentions to the historical and
ongoing plight of African politics.