Fox // 2006 // 123 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 8th, 2010
Charming. Magnetic. Murderous.
For whatever reason, 2006 produced several major mainstream dramas about explosive political situations in Africa (including Ed Zwick's Blood Diamond and Phillip Noyce's Catch a Fire). The best of these is The Last King of Scotland, a somewhat flawed film that reaches remarkable heights during its best moments and lingers with you long after the credits have rolled.
Nicolas Garrigan (James McAvoy, Atonement) is a young Scottish man who's just gotten his medical degree. Desperate not to become stuck in his father's medical practice, he runs off to Uganda (of all places) and decides to work in a small medical clinic there, healing the needy and doing good work. The year is 1971 and Uganda is in the middle of being overthrown by an up-and-coming general named Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker, Vantage Point).
History has treated Amin very poorly, of course. He's one of the well-known tyrants of recent decades, but watching The Last King of Scotland, it's almost easy to forget what a monster he is going to become. Nicolas first sees Amin at a rally, where he is seduced by the leader's charisma and promise of creating a new Uganda where people will be wealthy and free. A little later on, Amin injures his hand and Nicolas treats it. Impressed by Garrigan's medical skills and by the fact that Garrigan is a Scot ("I love Scotland! If I could be anything, I would be a Scotsman!"), Amin hires Nicolas as his own personal doctor. In no time, Nicolas is Amin's, "closest advisor."
Nicolas is treated to a new car, a private apartment, women Amin hand-picks for him, and all sorts of other luxuries. He is enjoying his life until he begins to hear disturbing reports of Amin's personal enemies, friends, and aides disappearing without a trace. Amin laughs off the rumors, but the evidence begins to pile up. As Nicolas grows more suspicious, Amin grows more impatient with the young doctor.
For the film's first hour or so, The Last King of Scotland is a fascinating, funny, and chilling examination of this very volatile and deadly leader as seen through the eyes of a young man slowly beginning to break out of his hypnosis. Unfortunately, the film's second hour is a bit less successful, as the film seems to break away from the realm of reality and head into historical fiction. Nicolas begins a dangerous affair with one of Amin's wives, a plot development that feels awkward and forced. There are still scenes of tremendous power (and startling brutality) in this portion of the film, but the feeling of being transported to another place is lost and the awareness that we're watching a somewhat contrived movie is enhanced.
Still, there's plenty to recommend about The Last King of Scotland, first and foremost the Oscar-winning performance of Forest Whitaker. He is tremendously charismatic and powerful as Amin, presented a multi-layered performance of tremendous conviction. Whitaker is a tremendous actor and he's been doing tremendous work in films for years. Have you ever seen Smoke, American Gun, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, or Bird? If not, you've missed some tremendous pieces of acting (and some excellent movies). However, a good argument can be made that this film is the brightest jewel is his crown, a powerful piece of acting that may very well go down as the role he is best remembered for at the conclusion of his career. He creates an Idi Amin that is impossible to forget. James McAvoy (a fine actor in his own right) is quite good as well, but is a less interesting character by default. Supporting work from Kerry Washington (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) and Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) is also solid.
While I'm not 100 percent enthusiastic about all of the visual choices made in the film (particularly some scenes that use cheap desaturation in an attempt to make things seem "gritty"), the movie does receive a pretty solid Blu-ray release. The gold-tinted scenes that take time to soak in the African landscape are particularly excellent, as detail is strong throughout. Blacks are reasonably deep and shading is pretty good. There's an inconsistent level of grain onhand, but it's never particularly distracting. The image looks very natural and seems free of DNR tampering. Audio is quite good as well, particularly in terms of delivering the eclectic soundtrack. The music is pretty evenly divided between regional folk songs and a score by Alex Heffes. The songs are quite effective in helping establish a regional atmosphere, but the score takes a drastically different approach. It contains little to no African influences, taking more of a traditional drama/thriller approach. A handful of scenes in the second act also manage to pack a punch.
Supplements are hauled over from the DVD release: a commentary with director Kevin McDonald, some deleted scenes w/optional commentary, a handful of featurettes ("Capturing Idi Amin," "Forest Whitaker: Idi Amin," and "Fox Movie Channel Presents: Casting Session,") and a theatrical trailer.
The Last King of Scotland is a mild disappointment in some ways, not because it's a bad film...on the contrary, it's a very good film...but it could have been a great film had the filmmakers not felt the need to sensationalize things. I mean, sensationalizing Idi Amin's story is a bit like putting a pile of sugar on a perfectly good bowl of ice cream, you know? The story is sensational and dramatic enough on its own; the phony dramatic ornaments only distract from the film's power. Nonetheless, I highly recommend the movie, as there's more than enough good that outweighs the bad. It's a flawed film with some remarkable moments and one of the finest performances of the past decade.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes