Strange to think that the flamboyantly lethal nut job Idi Amin died in Saudi Arabia just three years ago. About 80 at the time, he had fled Uganda in 1979 after murdering upwards of 300,000 souls. Larger than life physically and metaphorically, he was a former heavyweight boxing champion with a brilliant sense of leadership as a performance: as a dictator, his methods were brutally antediluvian, but his public relations cunning was consummately 20th century. Smiling into cameras, he dropped provocations like bombs: “I don’t like human flesh. It’s too salty for me.”
The queasily enjoyable new fiction film “The Last King of Scotland,” based on the novel by Giles Foden and directed by Kevin Macdonald, creates a portrait of this famous Ugandan dictator from inside the palace walls. Furiously paced, with excellent performances by Forest Whitaker as Amin and James McAvoy as the foolish Scotsman who becomes the leader’s personal physician, the film has texture, if not depth and enough intelligence to almost persuade you that it actually has something of note to say. It would make a terrific double bill with Barbet Schroeder’s mesmerizing 1974 documentary, “General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait,” of which Mr. Macdonald has obviously made a close and fruitful study.
As it also happens, “The Last King of Scotland” would make an even better double bill with Stephen Frears’s forthcoming film “The Queen,” a sly peek at the current British monarch in the wake of the death of Princess Diana. (Amin once wrote milady: “Dear Liz, if you want to know a real man, come to Kampala.”) Amin was an amateur merchant of death compared with the historic British monarchy, but he absorbed the lessons of its colonial tyranny fatally well.
“The Last King of Scotland” makes the case that Amin was rational enough to understand his country’s tangled relationship with British imperialism and to inject that sociopolitical understanding into words. If this lecture feels a little too neat and contrived, well, that’s entertainment.
And how! Cannily designed to please and repulse, “The Last King of Scotland” uses a self-anointed outsider, Nicholas Garrigan (Mr. McAvoy), as its initially empathic point of entry. Arriving in Uganda in the early 1970’s, this young doctor evinces an understandable wide-eyed enthusiasm and wonderment at the sights and sounds around him. He’s alive to his exciting new world, which the exceptional cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who shot Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” and Lars von Trier’s recent films, paints in deeply saturated color. The otherworldly Fauvist palette, as well as the interludes of frenetic cutting, at times recall the Brazilian art-house exploitation flick “City of God,” though Mr. Macdonald, who has a background in documentary, proves somewhat savvier about the politics of representation.
Crucial to that savvy is the director’s vision of Amin as Dr. Frankenstein and monster both. A period fiction with a high-gloss historical finish, “The Last King of Scotland” is also a very contemporary, pointedly resonant film about blowback. That said, and despite some background filler, Mr. Macdonald isn’t interested in furnishing history lessons, and the details of Britain’s African adventures remain largely unstated. In 1888, much as it did throughout Africa and the world, the British government gathered together dozens of different ethnic groups and various kingdoms under its control, naming this new protectorate and commercial venture Uganda. Many pounds of profit later, in 1962, Britain granted Uganda its independence; the African nation has been struggling to recover ever since.
In 1971 Amin ousted Milton Obote, who had become president after tossing out the country’s king five years earlier. (Mr. Obote himself may have been responsible for half a million deaths.) “The Last King of Scotland” opens shortly after Amin has seized power, and his madness had yet to take at least visible bloom. After a brief spell working at a clinic run by a white British doctor (Adam Kotz) and his wife (a very fine, almost unrecognizable Gillian Anderson), Garrigan signs on with Amin. The Scot eagerly makes the transition from rural slum to Amin’s Kampala compound, embracing his ready-made privilege as he drinks in the general’s charisma and hungrily feeds on his praise. A master of manipulation, this Amin knows a choice morsel when one flies into his trap.
Despite his vaguely Falstaffian proportions, Mr. Whitaker doesn’t look like the man he’s playing, a point that becomes less crucial as the performance takes root. As much a seducer as a destroyer, his Amin changes moods on a dime depending on the gas percolating in his bowels or the threats on his person, real and imagined. It’s a role rich in gristle and blood, and Mr. Whitaker makes the most of it, even if the performance and the film’s essential conception of Amin never push deep or hard enough. This actor can play devious, as his brilliant turn in “The Color of Money” showed early in his career. But what you need in a film about a man who fed the corpses of his victims to the crocodiles is something more, something hateful and vile.
“The Last King of Scotland” delivers shocks worthy of the horror film it becomes. Garrigan is the kind of man who exploits his own boyishness, successfully with women, perilously with Amin, and Mr. McAvoy expertly makes the character’s naïveté seem at first appealing, then foolish and finally odious in the extreme. As a stand-in for all the white men who have unwisely and cravenly journeyed into the proverbial heart of darkness, the character effectively serves his purposes, and you shake your head, tsk-tsk, right on schedule.
Clearly, the film means this journey to be as inwardly directed as outwardly bound, though the larger message here, one that might make you blanch after you nod, is that the misery of other people makes unsettling entertainment, no matter how pretty the pictures and valuable the players.
“The Last King of Scotland” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). There is brutal violence from start to finish, including a scene of very graphic, believable-looking torture.
THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND
Opens today in New York and Los Angeles.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald; written by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock, based on the novel by Giles Foden; director of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle; edited by Justine Wright; music by Alex Heffes; production designer, Michael Carlin; produced by Andrea Calderwood, Lisa Bryer and Charles Steel; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 121 minutes.
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