Movie review by Greg Carlson
Kevin Macdonald, who previously directed the often engrossing “Touching the Void” and the brilliant “One Day in September,” makes his narrative feature filmmaking debut with “The Last King of Scotland,” an adaptation of Giles Foden’s well-regarded 1998 novel. Proving that he might still be better equipped to deliver gripping documentaries, Macdonald is occasionally hamstrung by the odd blending of fact and fiction, a regular distraction in a movie that causes audience members to wonder which things Ugandan dictator Idi Amin really did and what was merely cooked up for the sake of the drama.
Forest Whitaker, as the title character, goes to town in the role, catching Amin’s gregariousness and outlandish charisma without losing sight of the bloodthirsty tyrant who ordered scores of deaths among his own people. Whitaker shows just how easily one might have been seduced by the charming military man who promised a new Uganda to enthusiastic crowds, only to make a steady string of awful decisions that spiraled the country into misery. It is no easy task to empathize with such a well lampooned monster, but Whitaker brings his expert fire to the role, accomplishing a performance that ranks with his work in Jim Jarmusch’s underappreciated “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” and Clint Eastwood’s “Bird.”
Despite Whitaker’s domination of the film, the story is told through the eyes of the fictionalized character Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a Scottish M.D. who literally picks out Uganda from a spin of his bedroom globe. Following a flirtation with the fetching wife of the local physician, Garrigan unwittingly impresses Amin when the dictator’s hand requires medical attention following a car accident. Amin, who just won’t take no for an answer, cajoles Garrigan into service as his personal doctor, and the early sections of the movie delight in the strange relationship between the two unlikely acquaintances.
Macdonald strains to show how a person in Garrigan’s position might have been kept largely in the dark about Amin’s atrocious actions, but the young man’s initial exuberance for Amin is quashed when he witnesses the aftermath of an attempt on the leader’s life. In a risky move that completely obliterates credulity, Garrigan also begins an affair with one of Amin’s wives (Kerry Washington), a woman embittered because of Amin’s anger and shame over their epileptic son. It is virtually impossible to believe that anyone in Amin’s orbit would dare to seduce one of his wives, and this section of the movie is one of its least convincing, despite Washington’s wonderful acting.
As Garrigan’s relationship in Amin’s inner circle begins to collapse under the weight of the leader’s increasing paranoia, “The Last King of Scotland” relies more on melodrama and less on the effortless quirkiness that outlines the movie’s first half. A major plot point piggybacks on the well-known hijacking of an Air France flight that Amin invited to land in Entebbe. While Garrigan’s story in that episode has been fabricated, it shows the symbolic turning of the tide against Amin, and might have made an intriguing movie on its own.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/22/07.