The Last King of Scotland
by Giles Foden
"The Last King of Scotland"
You have to wonder if Scottish director Kevin Macdonald realized, when he decided to do something different than his successful mountain climbing documentary "Touching the Void," what a turnabout it would be to dramatize the story of one of the great despotic leaders of the world. Of course he had to realize it, and he met the challenge by capturing a quixotically charming and barbaric man with a gorilla-size personality in what is, essentially, a fiercely realized biopic.
One of the film's strengths --which may strike some purists as a weakness-- is writer Jeremy Brock's version of the fictional Scottish doctor that the tyrant adopted as his personal "advisor." This personality made possible a level of dramatic tension and character revelation that films of this form usually lack.
In no hurry to introduce Amin (Forest Whitaker) at the time he and his forces have vanquished his predecessor and he is taking over the rule of the country, the story concentrates on Dr. Nicholas Garrigan immediately after he won his degree, and his choosing to leave his family home in Scotland for a medical mission in the devastated country of Uganda. After a dusty bus trip highlighted by a lusty liason with a pretty fellow traveler he, at last, arrives and is met by Sarah Merrit (Gillian Anderson) for transport to the village hospital where her husband (Adam Kotz) welcomes the arrival of a 2nd doctor.
As Garrigan gets into the rhythms of doctoring endless lines of patients and into a strong attraction to Sarah, the new dictator, on a tour of his countryside, visits the village to fill the masses with hopeful visions of his rule and his impressive oratorical skills. Back at the village hospital, Garrigan is shocked by the appearance of one of Amin's men summoning him to attend the president who has been accidentally injured. The meeting is pivotal for both men. Impressed by the young doctor's spunky (perhaps dumb) frankness where everyone else is sycophantic and blatantly numbed by his resence, Amin expresses his quirky good favor by swapping his jacket for Garrigan's Scottish emblemed tee shirt.
A short while later, Amin's limo appears to spirit Garrigan to the capital for an offer of a high position running the state hospital and enjoying the comforts and privileges that go with the job. Which Garrigan at first declines. But responding to Amin's clever enticements that get the better of his idealism, he accepts, which makes a view of the man from the young doctor's perspective possible.
His new boss is a man of great presence and unquestionable charisma, capable of switching from utter charm to base barbarism with the speed of a bullet, the slice of a machete -- which Whitaker takes us through as though born for the job. The relationship. born of hope and respect, soon becomes nightmarish for the naive Scot, changing his happy-go-lucky demeanor as time and his realizations bring him to understand his benefactor's savagery against his people. When Garrigan, at last, senses the magnitude of the danger, he attempts to flee, but not before his love for one of Amin's wives is made physical, resulting in a horrible consequence. Nothing goes unnoticed by the murderous dictator.
Whitaker is alive with all the attributes: the charm, the self-importance, the brutality, the deception, the weakness, the inhumanity. It's a boundless performance that demands attention and the safest bet in town at this pre-nomination time is that it will earn one.
McAvoy's role may not rise to such attention but it's designed by skilled hands. Improving on the more subdued version of this character in Foden's book, the essence of an adventurer full of idealism and naivete fully believing in his father's "you've made a good choice in your life's work," makes the relationship with such an opposite as Amin credible. McAvoy's Garrigan is splendidly uncritical and hopelessly optimistic until circumstances boil away that simplicity in the oil of brutal reality. He uniquely balances between childish benefit of doubt and wizened adulthood, making this as much a coming of age story as a biopic about a dread figure in modern evil.
Notable, too, is Kerry Washington's stately class and sensuality as Kay, a dictator's wife with eyes for a better man.
Much should also be said for the look and texture of the film itself. If there's any movie this year that has a visual theme, from the titles to the suggestive color of its Ugandan setting, to the design of the poster art, it's this one. I'd take some issue with the degree of image obscurity in some of the lighting, but the wash of yellow and reds is so integral to the film that the sight of a frame or a letter in the advertising tells you what it is. Much credit for this, of course, goes to British cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle who photographed Lars Van Trier's last three films, "Dogville," "Manderlay" and "Dear Wendy."
The soundtrack, with music by Hugh Masekela, Mensah & the Tempos Band, Percussion Discussion Africa, a fine rendition of "Me and Bobby McGee" as sung by Angela Kalule and original score by Alex Heffes is stacked with African rhythm highlights.
~~ Jules Brenner Cinema Signals