24 September 2006

Movie Review: "Last King of Scotland"

Movie Review: "Last King of Scotland"
September 24, 2006 06:47 AM EDT
© 2006 by Digital Dogs

A long-awaited tour de force performance by Forest Whitaker carries The Last Kind of Scotland to the top of the heap in Hollywood at the beginning of Academy season. Academy season is when the studios begin tripping all over themselves to schedule special screenings of the movies they deem appropriate for possible nominations. And if ever a nomination looms, it looms for Forest Whitaker in the performance of a lifetime as brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin during the height of his reign from 1971 to 1979. Alternately warmly engaging and threateningly psychotic, Whitaker's Amin merges so closely with the real-life Amin as to be an amazing portrayal. Complete with black face and army uniforms with ribbons that grow across and down his grand chest, Whitaker is so in character he is downright scary in a glaringly brilliant performance.

An adaptation of the award-winning first novel by Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland combines fact and fiction to tell the story of how a Scottish doctor became Idi Amin's personal physician, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a composite character that combines three men into one for the sake of filmic brevity - thankfully.

Born into a dirt poor Ugandan family, Amin rises to the presidency of Uganda as a champion of the common African men and women who line the streets to cheer him as he and his entourage ride by in his huge Mercedes luxury limo. On the other side of the world in rural Scotland a young man follows in his father's footsteps to become a doctor. The young man can't bear to settle down in practice with his disapproving father and, on a complete whim, decides on a medical mission in Africa, selecting Uganda only by chance. Once there he shrugs aside good advice from the wife of the mission doctor, Gillian Anderson, and allows himself to become entangled in Idi Amin's tentacles. Carefree and naïve, Garrigan isn't capable of understanding the actions of the people around him, least of all Amin, who charms him into being his private physician almost against his will. Garrigan is unable to see the paranoid psychotic side of Amin until it is almost too late, and even then he causes the death of the only good man left in Uganda, a doctor who gives his own life so Garrigan can survive to tell the true story of Amin – from a white man's mouth, as the soon-to-be-dead-African-doctor tells him – so the world will believe. It is sad beyond speech to understand this kind of sincere patriotism. The story becomes involved with one of Amin's many wives and betrayal, insanity, and cruelty ensue. Some of Garrigan's behavior is hard to believe, but it is forgiveable since the character is a composite of three separate men. But the focus is all on Amin and the incredible performance-of-a-lifetime of Forest Whitaker which towers above all others so far this Academy season.

At just over two hours The Last King of Scotland is engrossing and disgusting at the same time. Whitaker's accent, command of two different local African dialects, physical attitude, persona, maniacal paranoia, even his skin breathes as did Idi Amin's. Whitaker spent two months in Uganda researching his role and learning local customs, speech patterns, and dialects. He found that many Ugandan's are surprisingly conflicted about Amin, most of the generation who remembers him best have passed from power and today's Ugandan's remember Amin as a man who made a big impact of the international political scene, and for that they remain proud of him. Amin persecuted many ethnic groups who resided in Uganda, the Acholi, Lango, Christians, Karamojong, the Turkana nomads from Kenya, Asians from the Indian sub-continent, and aligned himself with the Soviet Union and Libya. Shortly after Amin took power the US and then the UK closed their embassies in Uganda. Amin's full lengthy self-endowed title reads: His Excellency President for Life Field Marshal Al Hadji Dr. Idi Amin,VC, DSO, MC, King of Scotland, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.

The colorful, brutal, and ruthless Amin never wrote his biography, what remains about him is recorded in public record and remembered by people still alive from his time. His father was an ethnic Kakwa and Catholic who converted to Islam in his early 20s. The father abandonded Amin early on and he was raised by his mother. He studied the Q'uran in a madrassa for a short time and then was recruited to the army by a British colonial army officer. He worked, and some say trained, with a Scots regiment and formed a lifelong admiration of all things Scottish, even going so far as to have his own regiment of kilted African bagpipers parading around Kampala – a scene that can be viewed at the end of the film in news footage. He had a lifelong interest in Scotland, believing Uganda and Scotland were both under the yoke of the English colonials, and he believed he could save Scotland from the English and thus be The Last King of Scotland.

Amin formed alliances with the new terror groups that were beginning to pop up in the 70s, groups like the PLO, and the Red Army Faction. If you remember the word Entebbe, you'll remember it as the airport in Uganda's capital city, Kampala, where the Israeli army led a successful raid on an Air France Airbus filled with passengers and hijacked from Athens being held by PLO terrorists in June 1976. Israeli commandos attacked the airport and freed all but two of the 256 passengers. Entebbe was the beginning of the end for Amin, his erratic behavior increased, fear and terror ruled the country. Some go so far as to suggest Amin was suffering from neurosyphilis. Amin left Uganda in 1979 and lived the rest of his days in exile on a stipend from the government in Saudi Arabia, dying in August 2003, never setting foot again in Uganda.

The African music in this film is the most authentic heard on the big screen so far, displaying the joyous Pan-Africanism fever that was spreading around the continent in the years following independence from colonial powers. Tony Allen, a Nigerian Fela disciple, authors two of the Afro-beat songs used, and other local traditional music are heard, as well as South African Hugh Masakela and Bob Marley, … all hughly popular on a continent in the midst of a grand pan-African dream.

Director Kevin MacDonald, who has made a name for himself in documentaries, approached this film with the appropriate documentarians eye for setting time and place. A big story with an even bigger lead character needs a director who knows when to step back and allow the magic to happen. Once Whitaker was in character I imagine magic was all over the place. Whitaker's is a stand-out performance that should win the Oscar… at least so far this season.


Digital Dogs rating: A+, definitely worth seeing on the big screen.

MPAA rating: Rated R for some strong violence and gruesome images, sexual content and language.

Running Time: 121 minutes

Producers Andrea Calderwood, Lisa Bryer, Charles Steel, Director Kevin MacDonald, Screenplay Peter Morgan, Jeremy Brock, based on the novel by Giles Foden, Actors Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Simon McBurney, Gillian Anderson

© Digital Dogs



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