"The Last King of Scotland": A fictionalized drama about dictator Idi Amin
Seattle Times movie critic
Forest Whitaker and James McAvoy, in Kevin Macdonald's fine drama "The Last King of Scotland," make a haunting cat-and-mouse pair. As Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, Whitaker's enormous frame looms on the screen; he's playfully loose, but there's an ever-present feeling of menace. When we first meet him, the camera pulls in tight as he makes a speech at a rally, wild-eyed and jazzed by the attention. In his bedroom, he sprawls on a bed adorned by an animal hide, complete with snarling head. "A man who shows fear, he is weak and he is a slave," he says.
Nicholas Garrigan, a young Scottish doctor in 1970s Uganda on a vague do-good mission, is drawn to Amin's energy and joins his entourage as the ruler's personal physician. He's thrilled by the post, like a groupie in a rock star's entourage; McAvoy's skinny, pale frame seems to be perpetually prancing. (The actor is best known for playing the faun Tumnus in "The Chronicles of Narnia" and he still looks like a faun here; there's something slightly untamed about his gangliness.) He's a kid, and he doesn't yet realize that he's signed on with the devil — that Amin's rule would soon become a reign of terror.
"The Last King of Scotland" is fact-based fiction (based on a novel by Giles Foden; Nicholas has no real-life counterpart), but it resonates like the most vivid of history lessons. From the start, with director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle's jittery hand-held camera work, you feel the tension. We know things can't end well for Nicholas, or for the seared-brown country he's visiting on a lark, but he doesn't know it for much of the film.
Macdonald, formerly a documentary filmmaker ("One Day in September," "Touching the Void"), finds fear in tiny moments: Every glance, in this environment of fear, speaks volumes. Gillian Anderson and Kerry Washington both contribute soulful, indelible turns as women caught in unsafe places: Anderson as a lonely, knowing relief worker; Washington as one of Amin's multiple wives. (Anderson, strangely, seems to disappear from the film fairly early, but her performance is remarkable in its ability to create a character and history in just a few scenes. Her Sarah never looks at anyone straight-on; she's always peering sideways, not quite sure what to believe.)
Ultimately, though, this is a three-character story — Amin, Nicholas and Uganda — each, in their own way, doomed. "The Last King of Scotland," in its final scenes, builds to nearly unbearable violence and suspense, as Whitaker finally reveals the monster behind the smile. It's terrifying, but you can't look away. Macdonald has delivered a masterful tragedy, told in his characters' wary eyes.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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