The Last King of Scotland – Review

February 18, 2007

The Last King of Scotland DVDI’ve got a bit of a love/hate relationship with historical fiction.

At its best, it informs us somewhat of the feel (and often the facts) of a historical period as a background theme, while the fictional heroes act out a story line in the foreground – usually to entertain, or at least to provide a morality play.

At its worst, historical fiction trots out historical figures and facts as foreground characters, and skews their reality (for better or worse) in order for them to become the story.

The Last King of Scotland, a movie “loosely based” on a book of the same name that was itself “loosely based” on the facts of Idi Amin’s regime in 1970’s Uganda, falls somewhere in between these two poles.

The film offers up James MacAvoy as a fictional “Dr. Nicholas Garrigan”, a young, naively recent medical school graduate, off to Uganda to find adventure and escape his father’s medical practice as the anti-hero lens through which we view Amin’s Uganda.

Garrigan is practicing in a missionary-run bush surgery in a small local village when he has a chance meeting with the newly installed dictator, tending a minor injury after a car accident. Amin takes a shine to the young doctor and entices him to move to the capital, where he becomes Amin’s personal physician.

Through a slow progression, we see Garrigan first taken with Amin’s substantial charisma and charm, then gradually enter into a deeper relationship, becoming in Amin’s words, “my closest advisor”.

As Garrigan role grows to encompass issues far afield from being the President’s doctor, and he begins to relish his special status in the country, he has to try to ignore the signs of incipient madness in Amin, the brutal repressions that are going on in the country, and ultimately, the danger that even he faces from Amin.

The film is cinematically beautiful — the early scenes in Africa full of light, color and music, gradually turning dark, somber and ominous.

Likewise, the story itself is engaging, and begs us to ask — along with Garrigan — “at what point too much is too much?” when must he stop pretending that what is happening doesn’t concern him? and later when must he start being more concerned with saving himself than with saving others?

Like so many things, all of the true facts of Amin’s regime will probably never be fully agreed upon; there is somewhat credible evidence that some of the more notorious things he was accused of were part of political spin by the British and US governments, after Amin ran headlong off the rails of British colonial control. On the other hand, there is some fairly credible evidence that his body count (given as 300,000 at the end of the movie) may have been substantially larger than anyone ever realized.

The film plays rather fast and loose with more than a few of the facts and timelines that can be established, which is largely excusable in that it is a piece of historical fiction, and not a documentary.

As a film then, and as a morality play, the Last King of Scotland is excellent, and even bordering on brilliant at times.

Forest Whitaker turns in a chillingly creepy performance as Amin — one second captivating and charming, clowning for the media or his friends, another paranoid and afraid for his own life and regime, and the next, cold blooded and murderous.

Whitaker deserves the awards and nominations he’s garnered for this role; after this and his turn in season 5 of The Shield, there’s little doubt that he’s got a rare talent for portraying seriously psychopathic characters.

Be forewarned that this is not a movie for the family, or the faint-of-heart; the violence becomes substantially graphic (as it should) as the story progresses, and as Amin’s actions turn more deadly and bizarre.

In the end, the only somewhat unfortunate thing about this film is the title — while it’s quite brilliant and justified — Amin’s full self-proclaimed title included “King of Scotland” (among many other claims), and it does capture his fascination with, desire to be accepted by, and ultimately his resentment of the British government, I’ve got to believe that it has probably confused as many potential viewers as it has charmed.

Oh well.

Forget the title, don’t count on this to educate you on 20th century sub-Saharan African history, but do take the time to watch this movie; it’s a treat.

Just don’t do it on a full stomach, or before the kids go to bed.

The Last King of Scotland – DVD

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