The late 1960s through the 1970s were a tumultuous time for central Africa. It was during this span that the European powers gave up and/or lost their colonial possessions on the ‘Dark Continent.’ But what could have been a golden opportunity for progress quickly spiraled into chaos as the ethnic divides cultivated by the Colonial regimes gave way to a seemingly endless series of violent military coups, as the various former rebel leaders tried to cut themselves a slice of the action against the backdrop of global Cold War politics.
Perhaps the most notorious of these ‘evil African dictators’ (it’s telling that the phrase has become a caricature of itself) was Uganda’s Idi Amin. A rotund, boisterous and almost buffoonish figure, Amin was one of the most vicious dictators the world had seen post-WWII. Depending on the source, anywhere from 80,000 to 500,000 Ugandans were killed during his eight year reign. The killings were so brazen that the capital, Kampala, periodically lost power as dead bodies clogged the intakes to the local hydroelectric plant. These, of course, were the bodies that the crocodiles were too full to eat. The irony was that, much like the US-backed ascension of the similarly murderous Mobutu Sese Seko in neighboring Zaire, Amin’s coup was supported by the British as a bulwark against the spread of Communism.
Framed within this turbulent setting, we have “The Last King of Scotland,” the first feature effort from Oscar winning documentary film maker Kevin Macdonald (“One Day in September”). The film explores the inner workings of Amin’s regime through the eyes of a fictionalized Scottish doctor (in actuality, a composite of three real people). Wide eyed and brimming with optimism, recent Scottish med school graduate Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy, “The Chronicles of Narnia”) arrives in Uganda in 1971 hoping to save lives and change the world.
However, through the luck of proximity, Garrigan quickly finds himself appointed the personal doctor of the new President and self-proclaimed King of Scotland, Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker, “Phone Booth”). But as with all offers you can’t refuse, this is one he should have. Of course, things are great at first — luxury homes, fancy cars, up-to-date hospital facilities and lavish parties — but once Amin’s demented paranoia bubbles to the surface, Garrigan realizes that he’s in way too deep.
The major buzz surrounding “The Last King of Scotland” has been about Whitaker’s performance, and rightfully so. This is almost a one-man show as Whitaker effectively takes over the screen whenever he’s in frame. He effortlessly and believably shifts between affable Santa Claus and psychotic animal on a whim, never overplaying either end of the spectrum. Whitaker portrays Amin’s growing paranoia as a progressive emotional deconstruction, shying away from the typical portrayal of psychopaths flying off the handle at the drop of a hat. The intensity of Whitaker’s performance is palpable, and he makes you genuinely afraid of him.
As the naÃ¯ve Dr. Garrigan, McAvoy is solid. With his floppy red hair and incandescent blue eyes, McAvoy presents himself as a visual barometer of Garrigan’s increasingly dangerous predicament and frazzled emotional state. Notable supporting performances are given by Gillian Anderson (“The X-Files”) as the wife of one of Garrigan’s colleagues, and Kerry Washington (“Ray”) as Amin’s third wife.
The film has a breezy, hyper-kinetic disco style reminiscent of “Boogie Nights” and “Goodfellas.” Everything has a very ’70s feel to it, from the Afro-boogie soundtrack to the dim colored lighting and the oft-grainy film stock. This energy keeps the film moving smartly throughout its running length, even when it descends into the macabre during the last 15 minutes. However, most of the considerable violence is kept off screen, with Macdonald smartly choosing to let brief glimpses of pictures and dialog spur on the audience’s imagination. But he doesn’t leave our thirst for blood completely unslaked, as we do get to see one of Amin’s wives literally go to pieces and the good doctor meeting the business end of a pair of meat hooks.
“The Last King of Scotland” is an alternatingly hilarious and gruesome profile of one of the most evil men in modern history. It is also a well constructed and tense thriller that keeps you firmly in its grip to the very end. However, the dominating presence here is the monstrous performance by Whitaker, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear his name mentioned come Oscar time.
Kevin Macdonald (director) / Jeremy Brock, Giles Foden (novel), Peter Morgan, Joe Penhall (screenplay)
CAST: Forest Whitaker …. Idi Amin
James McAvoy …. Nicholas Garrigan
Kerry Washington …. Kay Amin
Gillian Anderson …. Sarah Merrit
Simon McBurney …. Nigel Stone
David Oyelowo …. Dr. Junju
Abby Mikiibi Nkaaga …. Masanga