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”.