The Last King of Scotland | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Last King of Scotland

Out of Africa

click to enlarge King of the scene: Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker)
King of the scene: Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker)

The political thriller The Last King of Scotland assures us it has been "inspired by real people and real events." There may not have been a brash young Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan, who in 1971 combined his medical training with a bit of adventure in Africa. But as anybody of a certain age can recall, there certainly was an Idi Amin, the murderous despot of the central African nation of Uganda.

Adapted from Giles Foden's novel and directed by Kevin McDonald, Last King grafts Garrigan's story, a slow coming-to-awareness tale, onto the events of Amin's regime. A chance encounter with Amin nets Garrigan, who's bored by the rural medical clinic he helps staff, a plum assignment: personal physician to the country's new leader. "If you want to be of service to Uganda," Amin cajoles, "what better way than to look after its president?"

We know this isn't going to end well, but Garrigan (James McAvoy) tumbles for Amin, portrayed here marvelously, with equal parts charm and terror by Forest Whitaker. It's a heady time as newly independent African nations are giddy with promise, and there's an aura of privilege -- sexual and otherwise -- that hangs over Amin's inner circle.

Ultimately, the film, which is never less than engaging throughout, is done in by the artifice of the Garrigan narrative. That Garrigan and Amin must fall out, and despise each other for who they really are, is inevitable. Yet rather than have this occur organically, Last King sets up an absurd, ripped-from-Jerry-Springer plot device. And using the 1976 raid on Entebbe as a literal escape hatch is laughable (I'd have sooner believed Garrigan to have swum across Lake Victoria to nearby Kenya).

It's also in these last-reel throes of melodrama that McDonald's film most resembles the hackneyed works of yore, whereby the white man ventures into the dark continent with noble intentions only to find himself trapped among lawless savages. McDonald proffers some rebuke -- Amin himself nastily reminds Garrigan that "we are not a game, we are real" -- but the conclusion is clearly constructed to fire us up over Garrigan's sense of betrayal and his immediate peril.

Whitaker, who's journeyed for years as a character actor in a slew of good and bad films, has already earned Oscar buzz, and his mesmerizing performance in Last King is worth the ticket price. Appropriately he renders Amin as larger than life (the film's title is one of many grandiose titles Amin bestowed upon himself). Amin is a dormant monster in fine leopard-skin robes, but Whitaker also captures the erstwhile ruler's charismatic playfulness that allowed the world to ill-advisedly dismiss him as provincial buffoon. AAb

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