Reviewed by GREG KING.
This searing film about megalomaniacal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, is not your conventional biopic. Rather, events unfold from the perspective of his fictitious personal physician, an idealistic young doctor who has come to work in Uganda.
Upon graduating from university in Glasgow, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy, probably best known for his role as Mr Tumnus in The Chronicles Of Narnia) is determined to escape the influence of his father, also a respected physician. He travels to Uganda, hoping to work with the poor and the needy and somehow make a difference. Soon after he arrives General Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) assumes control of the country, ousting corrupt President Obote in a coup, and promises lots of reforms to change the country for the better. Following a minor road accident, Garrigan meets Amin, who initially seems quite charming, and articulate. Amin, who is apparently fascinated with all thing Scottish, takes a liking to the young doctor, and persuades Garrigan to becomes his personal doctor. He also offers him a chance to oversee the modernisation of the country’s health system. Soon Garrigan has become one of Amin’s trusted advisers.
Garrigan is initially blind to Amin’s policy of systematically eliminating any opposition and his bloody purges. Only when it is too late does he fully understand the full extent of Amin’s madness and paranoia, which is hidden just below his clownish exterior and sometimes childlike behaviour. It is estimated that Amin killed some 300,000 of his countrymen during the bloody decade of his brutal regime. He realises that there is no way for him to escape the Faustian pact he has made. Garrigan eventually turns to the British (represented by a suitably slimy Simon McBurnie) for help. But in return for their assistance they enlist his help in a plot to murder Amin, using his privileged position to get close to the dictator. This ultimately leads him into even greater personal danger.
The Last King Of Scotland is driven by Whitaker’s superb, powerhouse performance, quite unlike anything he has done before. Whitaker brilliantly captures Amin’s contradictory and unpredictable nature, the volatile mood swings, and sudden murderous rages. He veers from charming and amusing, even joking with the international media, to terrifying malevolence in the blink of an eye. So intensely does Whitaker inhabit Amin’s complex character that he becomes quite physically intimidating in several scenes.
McAvoy is also excellent as the naïve and idealistic Garrigan, who soon finds himself out of his depth.
The film takes its unusual title from one of the titles that Idi Amin, in a moment of hubris, bestowed upon himself. The Last King Of Scotland is based on a novel by British author Giles Foden, and is the first dramatic film for director Kevin MacDonald, who hails from a background in documentary films. His previous films were One Day In September, which recounted the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and its aftermath, and Touching The Void, and they serve him well, particularly in the early scenes, which take us into Uganda at the time of Amin’s coup.
But he also proves quite an effective director of tense thrillers, particularly in the later scenes as Amin’s paranoia and brutality begin to overwhelm the country. As the full extent of Amin’s madness is revealed, the tone of the film becomes progressively darker. MacDonald deliberately shoots the film in a gripping verite style that is quite unsettling.