“The Last King of Scotland” based on the book by Giles Foden, is the intense story of charismatic and horrifying Ugandan leader, Idi Amin. Exceptional writing by Jeremy Brock and Peter Morgan, acting, and directing make a must see movie that sticks in your mind and on your heart like a battle scar.
James McAvoy plays new doctor Nicholas Garrigan. When Garrigan decides to have some adventure as a doctor in a third world country, he spins the globe and lands in Uganda. While out in the middle of no where Uganda a revolution goes on around them. Idi Amin, portrayed by Forest Whitaker, overthrows the government in a coup and the magnetic leader travels the countryside so his people can know him. During his travels he meets Garrigan, finds out that he’s Scottish, and asks him to be his personal physician. Garrigan agrees, starts his life of luxury and is thrown into a tyrannical world of systematic violence and paranoia. Eventually Garrigan becomes one of Amin’s closest advisers.
Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Idi Amin is frightening. When you first meet Amin he is fun, approachable and it was easy to find inspiration in his words and personality. Throughout the movie his personality changes from inspiring to paranoid and terrifying. Whitaker’s performance flows naturally in and out of these two men trapped in one body. He never misplaces his anger in a sweet scene; his glints of admiration never seep out during a frenzied rant. Whitaker avoids all hints of schizophrenia and ignores all opportunities to dive into multiple personality disorder.
Garrigan is unaware of what’s happening in Uganda at first, but even after he realizes what Amin is doing, he does nothing to stop him. Only when it seems the crazed paranoia and mass murders might affect him and weigh on his conscience does Garrigan say something. James McAvoy’s emotional transition from innocent privileged young man to a morally ambiguous government official is stirring. During the movie, I had to restrain myself from yelling at Garrigan to stop what he’s doing, to leave right away or to just do what had to be done. McAvoy’s seamlessly grows his character from an acorn to a diseased oak.
The supporting cast isn’t outshined by the main characters. Kerry Washington plays Kay Amin, Idi Amin’s third wife. Her performance is tender, perplexing and sexy. Gillian Anderson plays Sarah Merrit, Garrigan’s first love interest in the story. Her sage words and cool demeanor will be left ringing in your ears by the end of the movie. Simon McBurney, Nigel Stone’s character, is monstrous in the covert, James Bond sort of way. His maniacal character is not over acted, absolutely to the credit to Stone.
Jeremy Brock and Peter Morgan use an historic figure to tell a cautionary tale about what happens when you let fear decide who runs your country and what happens when your blind ambition overrules your moral center. Their characters are complete and lacking no texture. The temptation to make characters who are strictly monsters or heroes is avoided. Each character, even Amin, is not strictly good, nor bad, but products of their circumstances. I found the recipe for creating a monster far too realistic to be comfortable and for that I thank the writers for giving me the opportunity to feel that level of discomfort. Even the hero of this movie is only slightly heroic; leaving the melodramatic phony heroics for a superhero movie. Garrigan’s transformation left me wondering if I could be any stronger than he is, given the situation he got himself into.
I was impressed that the cinematographers and directors made a point of changing the camera style, lighting and framing to fit the mood of the movie. There are scenes where the sweat on someone’s face seems radiant in the dark. There is an impressive use of light to set mood that doesn’t fall into the cliché parenthesis.
This shattered my personal peace. It has left me to question my own behavior. Have I paid enough attention to my own life? Have I let raw, unadulterated ambition kill parts of my humanity? What would I do in that situation? At what point would I run screaming from Uganda? Can we afford to be afraid and let that fear color our decisions when it comes to our government? How can I tell if someone is a monster when they are so charismatic? Has my ambition hurt other people?
“The Last King of Scotland” is a heart pounding drama that left me uneasy, utterly disappointed with the quality of the characters’ behavior and inspired by the quality of the film making. Missing this movie would be bad for your cinematic knowledge and for your personal growth.
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