Judge Daniel MacDonald suggests that if Idi Amin had actually tried haggis before declaring his devotion to Scotland, this would have been a much shorter movie.
Our review of The Last King Of Scotland (Blu-Ray), published February 8th, 2010, is also available.
Charming. Magnetic. Murderous.
The Last King of Scotland is best known for the astonishing, Oscar winning performance by its lead actor Forest Whitaker (Panic Room) as Ugandan president Idi Amin. But the film as a whole is a captivating and seductive piece of work that respects the audience's intelligence, chooses restraint over shock value, and introduces the world of Uganda in the 1970s from the inside. You may come for Whitaker, but you'll stay for the storytelling.
Facts of the Case
Scotland, 1970. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe), having just graduated from medical school, spins a globe in his room with the intention of going wherever his finger lands. The fact that he spins again after landing on the relatively pedestrian country of Canada speaks to the type of adventure he seeks. But the second try is more appealing to the young man: Uganda.
Arranging for work in a small, under-funded field hospital, Nicholas quickly takes to helping the Ugandan people, enthusiastically treating and befriending the locals, and swooning over fellow foreigner Sarah Merrit (Gillian Anderson, The X-Files), who happens to be married to the hospital's other doctor. Nicholas loves his work, but his adventurous spirit seems somewhat stifled—until he meets the country's new president, Idi Amin.
Called to the site of an accident involving Amin, Nicholas impresses the man with his fiery spontaneity, and is himself easily charmed by Amin's huge personality. Not long after this first meeting, Nicholas is asked to become Amin's personal physician and trusted advisor, and eventually settles into the president's luxurious lifestyle, that which is only available to the obscenely wealthy. But the more ingrained Nicholas becomes in Amin's government, the more he discovers about what is really happening to the Ugandan people under Amin's regime, and the young naïve doctor must fight to save both his life and his soul.
The Last King Of Scotland, at the heart of its narrative, is a cautionary tale akin to The Devil's Advocate and Two For The Money (sans Al Pacino, of course), but rather than presenting a clear-cut battle between an evil manipulator and corrupted innocent, the film follows the collision between two flawed men without passing judgment or telling the audience what to think. This is a serious feat considering one man was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, while the other is a foreign doctor doing humanitarian work, but nothing is as simple as it appears in the picture. The historical drama has been grafted onto the structure of a thriller, with a fictional Scottish protagonist interacting with a very real antagonist, making it accessible and entertaining, yet still asking more questions than it answers.
While Giles Foden's novel on which the picture is based finds its main appeal in the blending of historical fact with dramatic fiction, the success or failure of The Last King Of Scotland as a piece of cinema hinges unquestionably on the performance of Whitaker as Idi Amin. The piece is structured so that, just as Nicholas is charmed, seduced, and coerced, so are we as an audience. The first time we meet Amin, it's an exciting and enthusiastic scene of people rejoicing at the sight of their salvation, and a master orator telling these devout supporters exactly what they need to hear. It's nearly halfway through the film before we suspect that not all is as it has appeared, and having spent all of our time in Nicholas' insular world, we are similarly surprised by accusations of the British press against Amin, agreeing that such journalism may be exaggerated or politically motivated. The structure helps us fully understand how Nicholas gets himself so deeply in trouble before looking for a way out, but it is because of Whitaker's flawless work that we can be so taken by Amin.
Many were predicting Whitaker's Academy Award long before nominations were announced, and for good reason: his depiction of Amin is as complex, nuanced, and unflinchingly honest as any piece of acting in recent memory. This man, whom history has judged in the harshest possible way, is presented as a complete human being, often warm and loving, but conflicted as well. Scenes with Amin can alternate between funny and frightening at a shockingly brisk pace, and although you may not know exactly why his presence seems so foreboding, it does; Whitaker layers hints of the man's underlying violence and unstable mentality, often just behind the eyes. Despite this, though, we spend much of the picture's running time carried away by his charisma and inclusiveness, easily romanced into believing that he cares deeply for the people in the room with him and the Ugandan people as a whole. From the flawless accent to the subtle mannerisms and physical manifestation of emotions, Whitaker fully immerses himself into this, his meatiest role to date in a long and very solid career, and his approach to the part—that of treating Amin as a man, with all the good and bad that that implies, rather than a villain—gives us an entrance into his motivations.
While the movie revolves around and is propelled by Whitaker, James McAvoy is the man with whom we spend the most time, and he too makes his character a fully realized and flawed human being. I really appreciated the acting choices McAvoy made, often doing things that are not immediately obvious but are completely consistent with his character's motivations. In a way, Nicholas is a symbol for the first world, charging idealistically into a country like Uganda knowing very little about local politics or the situation of its citizens and quickly finding himself in over his head. McAvoy, who was nominated for a BAFTA Film Award for his work here, gives a masterful performance that ensures we will be seeing much more of him in coming years.
There is an impressive amount of tasteful restraint taken with the material here, given that over his nine years in power, Amin's regime was responsible for the deaths of more than 300,000 Ugandans, and credit is due to director Kevin MacDonald (Touching The Void) and writers Jeremy Brock (Charlotte Gray) and Peter Morgan (The Queen) for clearly defining a tone and a point of view early on in the film, and not straying for the sake of audience manipulation. It would have been all too easy to cut to scenes of various atrocities being committed, but doing so would have betrayed all the groundwork laid before. Instead, we learn information the same way that Nicholas does, through third-hand reports from newspaper articles and such, very rarely seeing any violence for ourselves. Of course, when we do see either the aftermath or perpetration of some brutal act, it's more unflinchingly harsh than we could imagine, and is powerfully affecting. Two acts late in the movie leave an indelible impression of what Amin's people were capable.
This DVD presentation is on par with Fox's other work, with a clear blemish-free anamorphic picture (we were provided a "check disc" for review purposes, so it is difficult to judge what exactly the final picture will look like, but I can only assume that the occasional pixilation and false contouring will not be present in the DVD's final form). This is not a movie suited to an aggressive soundtrack, but music and ambient sounds are appropriate enveloping with this 5.1 track.
A number of deleted scenes are included, most of which are longer versions of scenes already appearing in the picture or elaborating on information that has already been communicated, so none provides much additional insight or are missed from the final product. An audio commentary by director MacDonald explains why each was deleted; he also provides a commentary for the film.
The most valuable supplement is the excellent 30-minute documentary "Capturing Idi Amin," which provides a great deal of historical context, and discusses candidly some of the liberties taken by the filmmakers for dramatic effect. It is a dense, fast paced featurette that is absolutely worth your time. Also included are two short featurettes on the casting and performance of Whitaker and a pair of trailers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Having used the "prodigy thriller" mould as a template for the story, the film does play out in a rather predictable way—we know Nicholas will turn down Amin when first offered the job just as well as we know he will soon be swayed by some extravagant gift, and we know his lasting glances toward Amin's wife Kay (Kerry Washington, Mr. & Mrs. Smith) can't lead anywhere good for either of them. It's a well-worn storyline, and hits nearly every traditional beat. That its predictability doesn't lessen the film's enjoyment reflects the utterly compelling nature of the subject itself.
A captivating portrait of both a powerful dictator responsible for the deaths
of hundreds of thousands and a selfish idealist who loses his way all to easily,
The Last King Of Scotland is a rich experience of a movie, fast paced and
filled with detail. The well-deserved praise of Whitaker's performance has
garnered more attention for the movie than otherwise might have been, but what
will make it a lasting work are its honest characterizations, complex
situations, and sharp storytelling. This is a morally messy picture with no
clear definition between right and wrong, which makes for a thought-provoking
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Kevin Macdonald
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