The Last King of Scotland
Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Starring Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Gillian Anderson, Simon McBurney, David Oyelowo. (2006, R, 121 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 13, 2006
At the heart of this movie is a ferocious performance by Whitaker as the ousted Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. The actor so finely captures the ruler's vocal inflections and physical presence that it's hard not to just sit back and enjoy the illusion created by such a magisterial transformation. In addition to providing this showcase for the actor's craft, the film forces us to grapple with the confusing amalgam of attributes that was Idi Amin. A populist leader who also slaughtered obscene amounts of his citizenry, Amin began as a probably well-intentioned president who was ultimately undone by his raging paranoia and violent impulses. Whitaker brings out all these aspects and more, invoking a complex man who could be at once beloved and feared, charming and chilling. Yet, it's not the leader on the world stage that The Last King of Scotland offers us as much as an intimate portrait that is seen through the eyes of a callow young doctor who gradually grows thoroughly disillusioned after spending years as the chosen bosom buddy of the erratic dictator. Aside from the fictional invention of the doctor, Nicholas Garrigan (McAvoy), this narrative device feels like the same sort of miscalculation that marred the civil rights drama Mississippi Burning: Both films are stories about black populations that are told through the eyes of white interlopers. Furthermore, Garrigan is not a particularly likable character; his naive self-interest is unforgivable in this dangerous milieu, and his late-stage transformation and illicit love affair never have the ring of truth. With an unsympathetic everyman as our stand-in and an evil despot at the center of the story, The Last King of Scotland struggles to win our hearts. However, any drama that puts the Ugandan national story in the spotlight is a good thing, as is the rumble of talk concerning Oscar possibilities for Whitaker. I'd be the last person to deny Whitaker a trophy. I only ask where all these supporters were after Whitaker completed Bird, The Crying Game, and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. This veteran actor is always great, and it's just a little bit sad that he has to play a big, scary demon for us to sit up and finally take notice.