The Last King of Scotland (2006) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for some strong violence and gruesome images, sexual content and language
Running Time: 123 min.
Cast: James McAvoy, Forest Whitaker, Kerry Washington, Gillian Anderson, Simon McBurney, David Oyelowo, Giles Foden (cameo)
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Screenplay: Jeremy Brock, Peter Morgan (based on the novel by Giles Foden)
Review published February 11, 2007
Loosely based on the critically-acclaimed novel by Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland pits fictional protagonist Nicholas Garrigan (McAvoy, The Chronicles of Narnia), a young Scottish doctor looking to help the sick and needy in Uganda, amid the real-life political situation that takes place there in the early 1970s. Through a series of circumstances, Garrigan ends up becoming the personal physician and most trusted adviser of the new president of the country, Idi Amin (Whitaker, Phone Booth), with whom he strikes up an unsteady friendship.
Garrigan thinks Amin is a noble man, although he soon finds out that he's been sheltered from knowing the truth about the dictator's tactics, as prominent people end up missing without a trace and rumors fly around the thousands of deaths that have been occurring at the hands of this man who claimed to be of the people. Garrigan wants to get out, but now he's in too deep, and as Amin's enemies continue to grow in number, the more paranoid, dangerous, and mentally unstable he becomes.
As directed by documentarian Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void, One Day in September), the film version differs from the book in making the relationship between Garrigan and Amin more intimate, and eventually much more deadly. Although this decision might make the film more accessible to a wider audience, as it is easier to understand what Amin does when it seems to be a direct result of information that cuts to his very core, it does weaken the larger political story overall by making the focus more about crimes of passion than it is about crimes against humanity. It also makes Garrigan seem like the biggest dimwit on the face of the planet, who actively seeks to have sexual liaisons with whomever he desires, regardless of whether these women are married and to whom.
Gillian Anderson's (Playing by Heart, Chicago Cab) character of Sarah Merrit, the wife of a good man and doctor, rebuffs his advances, and yet he persists, only thinking about his momentary pleasures. The same eventually occurs with one of Amin's wives, Kay (Washington, Little Man), who Garrigan idiotically must have, even after knowing about Amin's incredible paranoia and acts of brutality toward anyone he finds disfavor with. From a story standpoint, you know where it's all headed, and as a testament of Amin's cruelty, it is convincing, but at the same time, it's difficult to shake the feeling that Garrigan has given Amin little option in the matter, as the dictator's main modus operandi in his killings is predicated on the notion of making examples of those who seek to do him harm, personally and politically, which Garrison is shown to do repeatedly throughout.
Although the thematic thrust is weakened by this portrayal of Garrigan's lack of self-control and his indirect involvement in the deaths of at least three people in the film who have only operated out of kindness and compassion, the film is still very successful as a character study of a dangerous man on the brink of his own madness. Forest Whitaker gives perhaps his finest performance as the enigmatic world figure, giving him a certain sense of sympathy in his earnestness by which he seeks to reform his country, only to completely lose all sight of his plans when he cannot seem to stamp out the feelings of discontent and loyalty among his own people, not only in the public, but also in his own inner circle. Although Garrigan is the main player, it is only in his interactions with Amin, directly and indirectly, that he provides the fundamental interest in his story.
The Last King of Scotland is an effective thriller, harrowing when it needs to be, and as a character study, it does shed light on a historical figure known mostly as a villain in the world scene. Many elements of the relationship between Amin, his family and the people around him are fascinating, and with some very good performances by Whitaker and Washington, the film commands your attention throughout. While I do think, from a story standpoint, it's a shame that Garrigan wasn't limited to being a mere witness to the events of the Amin era, as he was portrayed more in the book, instead of a constant catalyst for Amin's rage, considering he is a fictional character, we'll just chalk up his constant missteps as dramatic license taken by the screenwriters in drawing out Amin to commit some of the most heinous acts of torture shown in film this side of a Mel Gibson directorial effort. It's a riveting portrait of tragic insanity, not only for one person, but for an entire nation so consistently ravaged by his remorselessly brutal power.
©2007 Vince Leo