Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is complete. He seems to spiritually, as well as physically, metamorphasize into the brutal African dictator; his every action and movement is that of Amin, and while his face, with the droopy eye, remains recognizable as Whitaker, everything else reads completely, totally as Idi Amin. It’s a masterpiece of a performance, the kind of incredible acting that crosses the line into just being. When we first see Amin he’s giving a speech to a crowd of Ugandans – Whitaker isn’t pretending to give the speech, he is giving the speech. The difference between the two may sound absurd, but in reality there’s a chasm that separates an actor acting something and a person doing something.
Whitaker almost singlehandedly elevates The Last King of Scotland to another level – the film’s story could have been presented as a potboiler thriller, but between that central performance and director Kevin Macdonald’s interest in presenting a reflection of the corrupt white influence on Africa, the movie becomes something far more interesting than its outline. The movie as a whole never quite lives up to Whitaker’s performance, and its third act does get more thriller-esque than I expected, but Last King is still a strong, good film in the vein of The Constant Gardener.
James McAvoy, best known to US audiences as the faun Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, is Nicholas Garrigan,a young Scottish man of privilege. He’s just graduated medical school, just like his dad, and he’s about to head into practice with his dad. But the life of a Scottish doctor is too confining for this flamboyant character who we’re first introduced to as he leads a group of friends on a post-graduation skinny dip – he wants something bigger. He spins a globe, determined to travel to wherever his finger lands. When it lands on Canada he spins again and finds himself in Uganda.
Garrigan has come to Uganda to work with a medical outpost that serves the most wretchedly poor Ugandans – at least the ones that aren’t turning to the local witch doctor. The whole trip begins as the grand adventure he wanted – on the bus ride to the medical outpost he seduces a local girl, and then at the outpost he slowly falls for the wife of the head doctor, played by Gillian Anderson with a moderately convincing accent. Uganda itself is an exciting place for him to be because as he arrives there’s a military coup – General Idi Amin has overthrown the Communist government, much to the joy of the people.
Through a twist of fate Garrigan meets Amin – the dictator hits a cow with his car and injures his hand; the doctor is drafted into service to help him. When the sounds of the dying cows moans drive him beyond distraction, Garrigan grabs Amin’s gun and puts the animal out of its misery – this bold gesture appeals to the General, and he convinces Garrigan to become his personal physician.
The young Scot leaves the poor people behind and gets caught up in Amin’s new government, and eventually Amin’s growing paranoia and insanity. Garrigan finds himself complicit in Amin’s reign of terror, and responsible for murder. What’s so refreshing about The Last King of Scotland is that Garrigan’s a total pussy about it all and, without giving away the ending, I would argue that he’s in no way the hero of the piece and that any actions that he takes that are even mildly heroic are taken because of the most base self-preservation instincts.
Amin is the titular (and self-apointed) last king – he was essentially created by the British Army, and he fought alongside Scotsmen and had a deep affinity for them. Amin becomes a grotesque mockery of the West, adopting Scottish kilts for his army and showing up on horseback in one scene as an African cowboy – here’s what the seeds of colonialism grew into, a monstrous and murderous lunatic. Garrigan is just the latest in a series of larking Westerners drawn to the Dark Continent for exotic excitement, but what he finds is this malignancy.
What makes Amin terrifying is how charming he is. Whitaker presents him as a man quick with a laugh or a joke until some unknowable switch is turned on in his head, when he’ll have you murdered and dismembered. The hug that Amin wants to give you could be a friendly show of love or it could be a death grip – or it could change halfway through into one or the other. Whitaker doesn’t give Amin many of the signifiers we expect in such schizoid characters, making him all the more effectively scary – suddenly those eyes go dead and you’re sure something very bad is about to happen.
The Last King of Scotland keeps many of those very bad things offscreen, a decision I questioned until the film exploded into violence in the third act. MacDonald was smart to hold the atrocities back – we need to be with Garrigan throughout the film, just as complicit as he is (the movie echoes Boogie Nights in some structural ways, although that revelation comes partially from a pool scene that looks like the one PTA took from Cuba Libre – still, the film follows the rise of a foolish young man absorbed into a new world and family, a rise that has an inevitable and terrible fall at the end of it) and to do that the film keeps the worst away from us. By the time Garrigan semi-inadvertently brings about the death of one of Amin’s cabinet ministers, he’s fully ensconced and trapped in Amin’s madhouse. The dread begins to build – we know what a butcher Amin was – until it finally physically manifests in a brutal torture scene (a scene which also echoes another film – A Man Called Horse – and represents Garrigan’s initiation into manhood in many ways).
McAvoy is good as Garrigan, but he’s working in Whitaker’s shadow. Still, his transition from spoiled party boy to terrified refugee is played smoothly, and the actor has an endless supply of charisma which keeps you on his side even as he makes stunningly stupid decisions that doom others around him. Garrigan’s a boy, completely unprepared for the savagery of the world he’s found himself trapped in.
The Last King of Scotland is based on a novel, and the Garrigan character is drawn from a number of real Westerners in Amin’s life. The movie has the shock of the real, though, and while it’s “inspired” by true events, it feels more truthful than most historical or biopics. Macdonald is a documentary filmmaker, and in many ways he brings that emotional aesthetic to this film without making it a cinema verite piece. The Last King of Scotland isn’t masquerading as documentary, but it’s filmed in the real locations, and Macdonald uses the true locations to bring verity to his film. He also makes grand use of the beautiful Ugandan countryside, giving the film a sense of true geography and place.
But what gives The Last King of Scotland most of its truth is that marvelous performance from Forest Whitaker. This is a career-defining role, and it should be acknowledged come awards time.
A note on scores: I am now only scoring films on full or half points