A string of Hollywood-produced, Africa-based films throughout the past three years have reminded audiences of the sorrow and turmoil that exists across the continent. The results are a mix of informative, though not very uplifting, experiences.
In the spirit of such films, “The Last King of Scotland” does to its audience what Idi Amin did to his people. It dangles Africa’s hope for a fleeting moment, then violently snatches it away.
Based on the 1998 novel of the same name, “The Last King of Scotland” is a complicated piece of historical fiction, weaving together the story of the real-life Amin (Forest Whitaker) and his fictional doctor, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy).
Garrigan, a bright-eyed medical school graduate, winds up in Uganda on a whim. Eager to break out of dreary Scotland, he spins a globe and decides to fly to whatever destination his finger lands on.
He lands in Uganda in the early ’70s, after former army officer Amin catapults to power following a violent coup. After a chance meeting, Garrigan winds up as Amin’s private doctor. This part of “The Last King of Scotland” plays like a spin on “Almost Famous,” with the young doctor becoming pals not with rock stars, but with Uganda’s equivalent: the frightening yet strangely endearing Amin.
As the story unfolds through Garrigan’s eyes, “The Last King of Scotland” invites the viewer to get as swept up in the mess as Garrigan. Though it’s fiction, it’s strangely believable how the young doctor without borders goes from treating a hand injury of Amin’s, to becoming his personal physician, to becoming his most trusted ally. Though naive, Garrigan is not as innocent as his youth suggests. He can be cocky and brazen. His near downfall results partly from his own faults mixed with his environment.
And what an environment it is. Life with the strangely magnetic Amin could not have been a relaxed existence. With his amblyopia (his “lazy eye”) and imposing size, Whitaker is a menacing personification of Amin. Whitaker, who recently won a Golden Globe for his performance, plays Amin like James Gandolfini plays Tony Soprano. He’s inviting, with a disarming sense of humor to boot. But beyond the charm lies a sadistic side, hidden behind Amin’s roaring laugh and alluring glare. Amnesty International estimates Amin could have been responsible for up to 500,000 deaths during his nearly decade-long reign. It’s disturbing how one could forget such atrocities for a moment as “The Last King of Scotland” carries the audience along, allowing those who don’t already know the real-life ending to remain optimistic.
Yet despite the atrocities being committed across Uganda in the name of Amin, director Kevin MacDonald leaves the death squads and piles of bodies to the imagination. There’s hardly even a flash of old stock footage to hint at the violence. Like Garrigan, the audience is meant to take Amin at his word. MacDonald maintains Amin’s screen presence, allowing Whitaker to dominate the frame when he excites a crowd or makes a toast.
Like 2004’s “Downfall,” a masterful film that depicts Hitler’s final days, “The Last King of Scotland” is fascinating in its attempt to portray an inhuman man humanely. Yet as characters, Amin and Hitler were different. When he knew the end was near, Hitler remained hopeless and miserable. Amin joked at press conferences while contemplating fleeing into exile. “The Last King of Scotland” proves the only thing worse than a murderous president is one who also laughs about it.
“The Last King of Scotland” was written by Jeremy Brock and Peter Morgan, and directed by Kevin MacDonald.
“The Last King of Scotland” received 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.