Film review: 'The Last King of Scotland'
Like many British subjects before him, Nicholas Garrigan, a newly-minted doctor, goes to Africa to escape a smothering father. Initially, the fictional Nick, our fearless guide in "The Last King of Scotland," finds Uganda a lush cradle of civilization.
But when he is recruited as the personal physician of Ugandan president Gen. Idi Amin, the cocky Scot comes to see the onetime British protectorate as a mass grave, dug on orders of the volatile, if charismatic, despot on a genocidal spree. (It is estimated that Amin killed more than 300,000 of his people -- three percent -- between 1971 and 1979.)
So keen is the boyish Nick (James McAvoy) on dodging his own domineering dad that he becomes indentured to this demonic father of an unstable African nation.
And so volcanic is Forest Whitaker as Amin, in this riveting political thriller that packs the punch of a horror movie, you can feel his heat and smell his sulphur.
Nick, brash and naive in McAvoy's wonderful performance, is an adventurer intoxicated by the threat of danger, whether it's that of a tyrant or a married woman. Nick is drawn both to an idealistic doctor's wife (Gillian Anderson) and to Amin's third spouse (Kerry Washington).
Amin never feels more powerful than when he gets a white man to do his bidding. Before long English diplomats refer to Nick as Amin's "white monkey."
"Last King" marks the feature debut of accomplished documentarian Kevin Macdonald, who chronicled the Munich Olympics massacre in "One Day in September" and daredevil mountain climbers in "Touching the Void." The theme running through these Macdonald films is that the nearer we get to death, the more powerfully we feel the life force.
But in adapting Giles Foden's novel, screenwriters Jeremy Brock and Peter Morgan serve up more gristle than meat. Morgan also wrote "The Queen" and, like that account of Elizabeth II, this one of Amin is less interested in politics than in the cult of personality.
The brilliance of Whitaker's performance, uncharacteristically exuberant for one of the screen's most self-effacing actors, is that his Amin reveals the human side of an inhuman brute, the magnetism of a repellent figure.
Amin is a vain man who exploits the vanity of others. In an inversion of the way that British colonials made natives their puppets, the general persuades Nick to leave his rural clinic and live at the royal palace in Kampala by promising the young doctor that he will become architect of a national health program.
As the larger-than-life figure, Whitaker seems inflated with helium, his outsized head and facial features metaphoric of Amin's ego.
The immediate antecedent of this performance would be Marlon Brando's Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now." But in Whitaker's canny creation of Amin there's also the menacing grandeur of Paul Robeson, who on-screen famously played Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones, self-crowned despot of a Caribbean nation. Like Jones, whose regimental regalia may have been a model for that of the General, Amin knew that petty thieves get put in prison but that big thieves get crowned king.
Great as Whitaker is in this juicy slab of Oscar bait, Macdonald's movie doesn't have much to offer beyond a pair of stunning performances, propulsive editing, fantastic scenery and the heartbeat rhythms of African music. If the film's moral is that British colonialism cultivated a poison tree in Uganda, it is eclipsed by Whitaker's mesmerizing turn.
THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND
Cast: Kerry Washington, David Oyelowo, Gillian Anderson, James McAvoy, Forest Whitaker
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
MPAA rating: R for some strong violence and gruesome images, sexual content and language
Running time: 2:03
© 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.