The Last King of Scotland

The Last King of Scotland

Film review by: Witney Seibold

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As Ugandan dictator/maniac Idi Amin, Forrest Whitaker gives one of the best performances of the year, as well as of his own varied career. The Last King of Scotland also makes the savvy move of not putting Amin in the spotlight (which would, I think be a bit self-indulgent), but prefers to focus on fictional Scottish doctor named Garrigan (James McAvoy) who becomes Amin’s personal physician. This way, instead of seeing a despot making out-and-out evil decisions for the benefit of the camera (which would be the sociopolitical version of Jackass), we have a complicated relationship between a blind and all-too-eager young man trying to, in his own mind, justify the evil he is subtly absorbing around him, and the charm and wealth and power of an almost blatantly evil man.

The film is indeed harrowing, and not at all bright. Dr. Garrigan is an enthusiastic man, but one too green to make any real adult decisions: He chooses to work as a doctor in a Ugandan mission in order to escape the banality of being an intern under his father in a dull Scottish hospital somewhere. He heals people in the bush. He meets another missionary (Gillian Anderson) (!) and only thinks to seduce her (and who could blame him, really). When he has an almost chance meeting with Amin, he is called to work at Amin’s capitol palace where he is fed and clothed, and given cars, and given the occasional showgirl to bone. Given the choice between living in the muck helping sick people, and living in a palace occasionally giving Idi Amin intestinal advice, Dr. Garrigan makes the choice most of us would.

Kerry Washington shows up at one point as one of Amin’s many wives. Garrigan, of course, immediately takes a shine to her and ends up having sex with her at a party. Oops. The story twist is a bit melodramatic, but it’s not enough to distract from the gritty suffocating realism of the film entire.

Of course, the longer Garrigan stays near Amin, the more he has to deal with Amin’s paranoia, and the increasing danger of being in a militarily strangleheld country. Eventually people are being killed in front of him, his passport has been confiscated, the local cynical underground (represented by Simon McBurney) will no longer help him unless he kill Amin, and he is tortured in a way not seen outside of a Hellraiser film. So, yes, the film is a bit harrowing.

But Whitaker and McAvoy stand up well against each other, so we feel tension, instead of childishly reveling around in the horror of it all (even Shindler’s List is guilty of this though some of its sections). And Whitaker (who will definitely be up for an Academy Award this year, if not already the shoo-in for winner) gives us the luminous dynamic mania of the mad dictator. Amin died in exile in 2005, making this film all the more maddening that such a horrible – and obviously batshit crazy man – was never punished for his crimes. September 27th, Fox Searchlight

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Published in: on August 28, 2007 at 8:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

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