Reviews

The Last King of Scotland (2006)

Emma Simmonds

Based on Giles Foden’s novel of the same name this bold, visceral cinematic-bodyblow takes a political maelstrom and a maniacal dictator and squeezes them into the mould of a genre-picture.


The Last King of Scotland

Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, David Oyelowo, Gillian Anderson
Distributor: Fox
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2007-04-17
Website
Trailer
You have most closely offended your father

-- Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), The Last King of Scotland

If we had monkeys in Scotland we’d probably deep-fry them

-- Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), The Last King of Scotland

Blazing in the prestige of its recent award-seasons coverage The Last King of Scotland attempts the ambitious feat of using a largely fictional storyline character to uncover something of the real Idi Amin. Based on Giles Foden’s novel of the same name this bold, visceral cinematic-bodyblow takes a political maelstrom and a maniacal dictator and squeezes them into the mould of a genre-picture. As brutally unforgiving and paradoxically witty as the man himself, it is unflinching in its presentation of the horrors of Amin’s catastrophic leadership of Uganda, and as the minutes tick by it becomes more and more apparent that this is not a film for the faint-hearted.

The title refers to Amin’s great passion for the Scottish people. He had a complex relationship with Britain as a whole. He joked that he could liberate Scotland in the same way he claimed to have snatched Uganda; whereas the British in fact had engineered his ascent and were closely watching over his rule. He had joined the British army in 1946 as part of the King’s African Rifles, where he developed a love of the Scots, as most of his immediate commanding officers were at this time Scottish.

Structurally The Last King of Scotland plays like a conventional thriller. It opens in Scotland in 1971 with Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a newly qualified doctor, travelling to Uganda on the chance spin of a globe. Initially finding work on a mission, and after a failed attempt at pinching a colleague’s lovely wife Sarah (a criminally wasted Gillian Anderson), he finds a more gratifying distraction when he is befriended by the newly installed President Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker).

Impressed by his courage and his Scottish heritage, Amin employs him as his personal physician and advisor. Seduced by the excitement and glamour of Kampala and revelling in his pride of place in the regime, it seems Garrigan has settled into a rather charmed life. When an increasingly paranoid Amin begins executing those he perceives to be traitors, and is thus revealed as the villain of the piece, Garrigan finds himself trapped, implicated in at least one serious crime, and ultimately in mortal-danger.

The film’s chief success lies in the casting of its twin-leads. Whitaker is simply extraordinary as Amin, and thoroughly deserving of his Best Actor Oscar. He is by turns twitchy, jolly, humorous, demanding, explosive. He has the appearance and screen persona of a gentle giant; even in the guise of the formidable Amin, Forest’s physical and figurative embrace appeals, and his friendship and respect are understandably coveted. At points he resembles an oversized, undisciplined child who knows not his own strength, and thus haplessly destroys those whose folly it is to get too close.

Crucially, Whitaker perfectly captures the flip-sides of volatility, petulance and mania. It is a performance of great commitment, complexity and intensity. Researching the part, Whitaker spent months perfecting Swahili, Kakwa (Amin’s tribal language), learning the accordion (his skills are glimpsed in a brief sequence) and hung-out with Amin’s children, siblings, and cabinet ministers. He also spent most of the shoot in character, even sticking to the same diet as Amin. As director Kevin Macdonald comments Whitaker, "absorbed him through every pore".

Similarly, McAvoy turns in an exemplary performance. It is all the more remarkable when one considers Garrigan is a mere fiction and might have been designed to serve simply as a plot tool. He is a convenient mish-mash of various figures in Amin’s life, which are assembled to create Amin’s “number-one guy”; both his confidant and a device with which to draw out the numerous contrary facets of a fascinating historical figure.

Garrigan is in part based on Bob Astles, a British soldier who wheedled his way into Amin’s favour to become an associate. Additionally, Amin had a number of British doctors, and interestingly McAvoy based part of his interpretation on British news-anchor Jon Snow, who had interviewed Amin as a young man and had been most charmed by him.

Garrigan is frustratingly flawed and arrogant; a man led by his penis and his pride. McAvoy fleshes out the character. He presents him initially as the brazen, cocksure adventurer who later becomes caged, nervous, and locked in a destructive relationship, sinking increasingly out of his depth. In one telling scene, as Garrigan attempts escape, Amin consumes him in the darkness of his embrace. In the process McAvoy renders Garrigan believable, detailed and very much part of this painstakingly recreated world.

The lovingly-captured, crisp, vibrant scenery belies Macdonald’s impressive documentary pedigree (he is the director of the highly acclaimed Touching the Void and One Day in September). The early village sequences are a kaleidoscope of colour and, in conjunction with the well-matched traditional musical accompaniments, provide an apt setting for Garrigan’s initially hopeful, boisterous spirit and the local excitement surrounding Amin’s coup d’etat .

The move to Kampala, where Garrigan is warmly inducted, is imbued with the glamour and prosperity of a city resembling Miami. Macdonald’s nervous, kinetic camerawork apes both the volatility of Amin and the spiralling desperation of Garrigan. The scenes between Garrigan and Amin are brief though dynamic, as if we are merely being permitted tantalising, cursory insights into Amin’s character, and the quasi love affair between these two men.

Stylistically the film is always interesting, if inconsistent. The documentary flavour of the early sequences is at odds with the fractious, hallucinogenic latter stages. And although this serves to illustrate the changing emotional states, it can be disconcerting. Without including a spoiler, the ending seems too contrived. Furthermore, peripheral characters are given negligible screen time, and, considering that Washington and Anderson in particular do such sterling work in their modest roles, this seems a shame.

The biggest problem, however, with The Last King of Scotland lies in the fallacious nature of the story. Any new insight into Amin that one feels they might have gleaned, can be quickly dismissed once armed with the knowledge that, as believable as Garrigan is, he quite simply never existed. Additionally, Amin’s relationships with other characters are rarely explored, which somewhat undermines the integrity of the story. That a film which boasts such enormous conviction is so ultimately misleading proves its downfall and certainly left me questioning whether this is something that can be considered anymore than an effective thriller.

The extras are good value and fill in the historical background that the film itself lacks.

Best is a half-hour documentary with a wealth of contributions picked from those closest to Amin, as well as the film’s major players; each attempting to impart their own view to counter the various myths. There are also a couple of promotional films, which deal mainly with the casting and some reasonable deleted scenes.

Finally, there is a director’s commentary and although this is frustratingly lacking in directorial insight, Macdonald enthuses endearingly about the locations and the extras, and has a number of interesting stories to tell. For example, he recounts an anecdote concerning Amin’s first trip to England as President of Uganda. Fearing the reasons behind this spontaneous visit, the British Queen was asked by parliament to discern Amin’s motivation for the trip. On asking him to what she owed the pleasure of his company, he replied simply that it was “very difficult to find a size 14 brown shoe in Kampala”.

7

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image