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The Last King of Scotland

Thursday, February 15, 2007
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Who was the last king of Scotland, anyway?The Last King of Scotland

Dir: Kevin Macdonald

On a continent that has seen more than its share of dictators and civil wars over the last fifty years, Idi Amin’s ruthless regime in Uganda during the 1970s ranks as one of the worst. As the lead character in The Last King of Scotland — a naïve Scotsman played by James McAvoy — remarks, Amin is “like a child, that’s what makes [him] so f***ing scary.”

While African cinema is really only available to North American audiences via the festival circuits, movies about westerners travelling to Africa, made by non-Africans, have been in steady supply over the last few years. They range from great – The Constant Gardener, Hotel Rwanda – to the risible – Sahara. There were two prominent films at last year’s Oscars; Tsotsi, a South African film which won Best Foreign Film, and the film that should have won Best Documentary, Darwin’s Nightmare, which is all about the disastrous ecological damages done to Lake Victoria. The other high profile films about Africa this year are Babel, and Blood Diamond, set in Sierra Leone.

The Last King of Scotland is a film about Africa from an outsider’s point of view. And it begins much like you would expect it to: the bored youth/newly trained doctor Nicholas Garrigan, a Scot, picks a country at random (not before dismissing Canada however, much to the amusement of the Whitby audience I was part of); he travels to Uganda not knowing a single thing about the country, sees the poverty, and becomes intoxicated with the exotic appeal of African culture. However, when called to assist the new president, Idi Amin (who apparently loved Scotland, no doubt because of a shared history of colonial rule…and the kilts), he becomes swept up into Ugandan politics and seduced by the enormous personal charm of Amin himself. He is led, like a lamb to the slaughter, into the middle of a brutal civil war.

Whitaker’s performance as Amin is a knockout. He’s charismatic, a powerful speaker, almost likable, almost, dare I say, charming (I swear I didn’t know that was on the poster). Of course, we’re seeing Amin through Garrigan’s eyes, who is almost frustratingly dumb. But as time goes on, and Garrigan learns the truth, Amin becomes truly terrible, verging on the insane. Whitaker as Amin is a case of perfect casting, and surely a role that a less nuanced actor would have reduced to buffoonery. Whitaker and James McAvoy are worth the price of admission. McAvoy has enough charm so that you forgive the foolishness of his character, and Whitaker is just downright scary, a true movie monster.

Director Macdonald has given TLKofS a hip, contemporary style that I think works well for the most part. It’s mostly handheld and shaky, and the cutting is fast and furious. He over-exposes the film, giving it a grainy look, which I guess, is what directors and cinematographers like to do nowadays to capture the seventies era. I’m not complaining, but it just seemed a bit overdone. It’s almost as if there’s a specific look that has to be employed to capture Africa from the Western perspective, and it looks a lot like a Lonely Planet documentary.

That said, it’s still a powerful film, with some brutal moments, but don’t go expecting a history lesson; it’s more political thriller and character study then anything else. This isn’t Idi Amin: The Biography, or even Idi Amin: The Carefully Balanced Account of His Life. So for all of you Idi Amin apologists out there – brace yourselves. For the rest of you who hate Idi Amin, as you rightly should, this film might be even harder to take. llewopemearg

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. James17930 permalink
    Friday, February 16, 2007 10:40 am

    I want to see this movie.

  2. Wednesday, June 6, 2007 10:31 pm

    I just saw this movie; there was supposedly a Korean theatrical release a while back, but I searched high and low for a theatre that was playing it, and found none. So I rented the DVD, and it is, indeed, a fine film.

    Forest Whitaker is amazing every second he’s on the screen. (And as a side note, he’s just as good as the antagonist Internal Affairs agent in the 5th season of The Shield, which I just finished watching. That guy’s having a hell of a year.)

    And there’s no need for reluctance, graeme, in saying he makes Amin likable or charming, because that’s exactly what he does — one side of Amin is the most alluring guy you’ll ever meet, but that other side … well, it’ll hook you in a different way. Ugh.

  3. Wednesday, June 6, 2007 11:10 pm

    By the way, I’m really glad you covered up the word “fucking.” It took me a while to figure out what you were meaning to say there, but once I did, I was thankful that I, along with my children and the elderly, were spared from having to see those three letters, “uck,” enveloped so horrifically in the amoral gutter that is “f” and “ing.” Thank you for shielding me from this trauma.

  4. Thursday, June 7, 2007 7:09 am

    Just trying to keep you pure, Beal.

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