MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Historical Drama/ Stars: Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Gillian Anderson, Simon McBurney, David Oyelowo, Apollo Okwenje Omamo, Shabir Mir, Cleopatra Koheirwe, Michael Wawuyo, Abby Mukiibi Nkaaga/ Runtime: 123 minutes
So is it just me or is there an unspoken rule to the world around us which states that every single tyrannical dictator in the history of the world, alongside being perversely charismatic and absolutely thirsty for power and all the trappings that come with it, also needs to come equipped with at the very least a single surprising if not fairly peculiar thing that interests them and/or an incredibly odd choice in terms of their fashion sense? I mean Colonel Gaddafi had outfits that were both outlandish to say nothing of being ones that pop star Michael Jackson might have worn in some of his music videos (and probably did), Kim Jong-Il had a very intriguing fondness for the discography of one Britney Spears, Saddam Hussein had a perverse fascination with both cheesy and pulpy romance novels and assault rifles completely lathered in gold, and even the former leader of Burma Ne Win showed some serious oddity when he made it so every single amount of currency that his country utilized could be divided by the number 9 for……reasons. Yet if these examples weren’t all enough for you, I think one of the more intriguing oddities I have heard about involved a man by the name of Idi Amin. A man who was not only the leader of the country known as Uganda in the long ago decade known as the 70s, but who had such an obsession with the country of Scotland that this guy literally made the Ugandan Army’s marching band take up the bagpipes to perform at events and even was known for more often than not wearing a kilt at state affairs. More than that, this is a guy who more than once claimed the title of “the “Last King of Scotland.” A title he gave himself since he saw a sort of familial tie of sorts between the Scots and their horrific oppression by the British in the days of ol’ and the country of Uganda’s desperate attempts to also get out from under the British and be their own country too. Of course if this sounds like a man who was a very inspiring African Braveheart in any way, I think I should now let the other shoe drop and tell you that Amin was at the same time a ruthless and all over the place at times tyrant whose reign was also the hands on which the blood of no less than 100-300,000 Ugandans can be drenched on. The reason I bring this man up to you dear reader is because he is at the heart of film helmer Kevin Macdonald’s slice of cinema from 2006 called, fittingly enough, The Last King of Scotland which is a visceral albeit slightly fictional thrill ride that gives us a front row seat to just how terrifying Amin’s reign really truly was. Indeed this is a slice of cinema that if you are able to look past the aspect that it is yet another slice of cinema taking place on the continent of Africa, but regaled to us as movie goers from a Anglo point of view, I promise that what you will get with this slice of cinema is a riveting entry in the political thriller subgenre equipped with some truly top-notch performances from a remarkable cast especially from screen icon Forest Whitaker who, as the titular king, is a complete and utter revelation as he goes from affable and good natured to icy-cold silent fury with the snap of a finger.
The plot is as follows: So as this slice of cinema establishes rather quickly, we see that our quasi-sorta guide through this literal political hell on Earth is a Scotsman by the name of Nicholas Garrigan. A young man who, having recently graduated from med-school, finds himself at a serious crossroads. Thus, in order to find a direction to his life that (hopefully) does not revolve working with his tough as nails father, we see our intrepid hero decide to spin his globe and wherever he points to is where he will go and, following a test run that sees him land on Canada, finds himself pointing at Uganda. Of course, it should come as no surprise to learn that the day our hero makes his way there to Uganda to work in a medical mission in the country side that the country of Uganda has its leader, a President Obote, finds himself unceremoniously shown the door courtesy of a military uprising spearheaded by a general named Amin. A man who it is worth mentioning was trained by the British to serve in their Colonial Army and whose superior officers were Scots. As fate would have it, we see that the general unfortunately suffers from a sprained wrist in the aftermath of a political rally and our hero is the one who is called in to help out. Yet despite their initial interaction being quite tense with machine guns everywhere and a miserable cow mooing away due to being closer to death’s door than it would care to be, we see that the moment our hero reveal he is a Scotsman that things lighten up considerably. It is from this that we soon see that our hero is brought before Amin who makes the incredible request to the young doctor that he would like him to serve as his, and the royal family in general’s, personal physician. Suffice it to say that for a period of time, it’s all relaxation and fun in the sun as we see our hero spend his time between reconstructing Uganda’s health care system and relaxing by the pool even as he still holds onto the belief that he is making an impact on the country for the better. Of course, with how blinded our hero has become by power it isn’t a surprise to learn that he is unaware that Amin is becoming more and more paranoid, a lot of government officials are starting to inexplicably vanish, and of course that he might just be in over his head way more than he would like to believe that he is. As for whether he eventually realizes it or not to say nothing of what becomes of him that is something I will leave for you to discover for yourself…
Now even in the face of the illness and poor economic conditions that our hero witnesses firsthand, it is still intriguing to note that the first third of slice of cinema is able to do an effective job at showing that almost indescribable mood that comes when one is both young and in a foreign country. A feeling that is perhaps best shown to us as we see Garrigan proclaim that he is an overseas medical officer during a fling with a local woman. A fling that also offers up a bit of foreshadowing for our hero’s eventual tryst with a woman who also happens to be one of his boss’ three wives. Now for those of you wondering if that is a spoiler well don’t worry too much because it’s not. I mean the moment he lays eyes on her at one of Amin’s state parties you pretty much know that eventually they’re going to be doing what Brian Fantana from Anchorman affectionately would call the “no-pants dance”. Suffice it to say that as a subplot to this slice of cinema it not only doesn’t feel like it needed to be in this movie, but it’s also the one instance where this slice of cinema gives off the vibe that it is poking away accuracy from a historical point of view so certain cinematic archetypes can make their way into the narrative. I mean don’t get me wrong: I understand why they put it in since this slice of cinema utilizes it in order to showcase Amin’s ruthlessness to say nothing of his loathing of disloyalty of any degree, but the movie had already shown us that earlier. With that in mind, the genuine core of the pathos in this slice of cinema has to be in the bond our hero has with Amin which, depending on the tyrant’s mood, really does fluctuate from a top advisor to an outright nobody who is stuck in a situation that is starting to go horrifically awry. Of course as things go from the typical bad to downright catastrophic, we see that the final third of this film becomes a truly wild thrill ride complete with savage and visceral violence as Amin’s paranoia spirals out of control and Nicholas desperately tries to find a way under Amin’s nose to get out of the country. Suffice it to say that film helmer Kevin Macdonald has managed to sculpt an intense political period film that also does a wonderful job of feeling very modern as well. More than that, this slice of cinema does a wonderful job of not only choosing to actually shoot in the country of Uganda, but the creative team behind the camera also all do a wonderful job of making this slice of cinema feel in many respects like a film of the era it is set in with particular regard to details, how the camera moves around a room, and how the color transitions from being bright at the beginning to bleaker as the film goes on so as to show just how ominous and gloomy the mood of this slice of cinema is starting to get.
Now for all the work done behind the camera in making this slice of cinema as taut and riveting as it ultimately turns out to be, I think a significant chunk in terms of the work done in front of the camera for aiding that effort has to go to Forest Whitaker who gives us both the tyrant and the almost childish sides of Amin perfectly. Indeed in the hands of a less skilled actor, this is a part that would easily have tragically just become a fairly one note straight up villain. Yet in the hands of Whitaker, we get a man who when we first meet him is charismatic and equally upstanding and affable. As a result, his metamorphosis as the film goes on actually becomes legitimately terrifying as we see Amin go from just being protective to just outright ruthless and fearful that his handle on the political reality in Uganda is falling out of his hands. Suffice it to say that it is a truly incredible performance and easily one of the finest Whitaker has ever given movie goers. As for the role of Nicholas, I know that there are some who will feel that James McAvoy proves to be nowhere near as charismatic as Whitaker is in his respective role, and you know what? You are absolutely right. At the same time however, I would also like to argue that his role doesn’t exactly need to be as charismatic. Indeed this is because not only is this man our guide through this ever-increasingly nightmarish world, but the narrative arc he gets involving him going from being a selfish and quite naïve individual to one who becomes both horrifically aware of his surroundings yet hopelessly trapped in them as well proves to be quite convincing for a movie goer to follow. As for the rest of the cast in this slice of cinema they all, from Kerry Washington to David Oyelowo and all the way to Simon McBurney provide top-flight work in their respective roles even though Gillian Anderson’s small role as the wife of a missionary doctor feels undeveloped to the extent that her character, despite a terrific performance from Anderson, really does seem like she is only a part of this slice of cinema in order to showcase our intrepid protagonist’s kryptonite. A kryptonite which happens to take the shape and form of attractive women who have been pushed aside by their husbands and are therefore particular susceptible to the good doctor’s particular charms.
All in all I am not gonna lie to you dear reader: The Last King of Scotland is one slice of cinema that I feel is most assuredly not going to be one that fits in what constitutes as a must-see for every single one of you out there. If however this is one slice of cinema that, based on what you’ve seen in the trailer and read in the review above, seems like this will be your cup of tea then I promise you will find a fair bit to embrace here. Indeed the team behind the camera does great work at bringing us back to the 70s, the director does a top-flight job, the cast is great, but above everything else is the truly incredible job done by Forest Whitaker as the titular character. Thus this slice of cinema may be uneven at certain aspects and avenues, but by and large this is a fairly solid and quite riveting film to say nothing of one that is most assuredly worth your time. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Last King of Scotland “06” a solid 4 out of 5.