Last King of Scotland, The: Kevin Macdonald’s Provocative Film, Featuring Forest Whitaker in Oscar Caliber Performance

Kevin Macdonald’s speculative film of fact, fiction, and myth in the case of Uganda’s tyrant Idi Amin, The Last King of Scotland is an original and provocative work, boasting a towering performance from Forest Whitaker.
The film, which played at Telluride festival and is now shown at Toronto festival before opening later this month, might present marketing and positioning issues for distributor Fox Searchlight due to its blend of genres and styles.
That said, Macdonald is a major, idiosyncratic talent to watch, having already impressed with his poignant documentary, “One Day In September,” and his feature “Touching The Void,” which also mixed fictional and non-fictional elements in telling a thrilling story.

“Last King of Scotland,” Macdonald’s first dramatic feature, is basically a fictional story, placed against actual events, specifically the real-life backdrop of Amin’s brutal regime. It’s not the first work to dissect Amin’s totalitarianism; there have been a number of documentaries, some of which quite good.

Based on the novel by Giles Foden, “Last King Of Scotland,” is a for the most part intriguing, though its experimental approach and blend of elements might presents problem that would limit its appeal to largely urban upscale viewers.

In his political tome, Foden has invented a dramatic character, Nicholas Garrigan (played by James McAvoy of “Chronicles of Narnia” fame), a young Scottish doctor on a Ugandan medical mission who inadvertently becomes entangled with Amin. Appointed as the dictator’s personal physician makes Garrigan a member of Amin’s immediate entourage and one of his most trusted confidantes.

Dissecting the doctor’s moral and political odyssey, the film begins by showing the young Scot in Africa sowing his wild oats, then swiftly moves into a portrait of Amin, the monstrously charismatic dictator, before concluding as a thriller, in which the doctor tries to escape and save his life.

When he graduates from med school, Garrigan spins the globe in his bedroom to decide where he will practice his profession. His finger lands on Uganda, and by coincidence, he gets there the very fateful day in 1970, when Idi Amin (the always reliable Forest Whitaker) seizes power.

Fate and coincidence continue to play crucial roles for Garrigan, whose trip to Uganda allows him to escape the career pressures imposed on him by his austere Presbyterian family. Garrigan joins a medical mission run by a gentle doctor and his wife Sarah Zach (Gillian Anderson), who he quickly seduces in what will become a chain of incidets of reckless and criminal conduct.

Garrigan’s service at the mission is cut short when he and Sarah are summoned to the aid of General Amin, who has just seized power in a military coup, and who has been involved in a road accident. Amin takes to Garrigan, claiming that he loves all things Scottish (he would eventually crown himself King of Scotland). Amin later summons Garrigan to Kampala, where he’s asked to be his personal doctor.

Rather naively, Garrigan refuses the job at first, only to learn that he has no choice. What’s a foolish guy to do He begins to enjoy the benefits and luxuries that go along with his new position and gets closer to Amin, charmed by the latter’s good humor and grand plans for Uganda.

In what’s another version of a Faustian tale, Garrigan sells himself to the devil, at first naively unaware of the milieu he has “chosen” to enter. Then, in the film’s middle section, Garrigan begins a gradual process of moral and political awakening to Amin’s tyrannical and murderous activities as well as the irrational volatility of his personal conduct.

Garrigan is also awakened to his own naivete in embracing Amin’s personal favors, disregarding the warnings of Sarah and the British consul Nigel Stone (Simon McBurney). While many Brits immediately understand the potential danger to themselves and to Uganda, Garrigan’s first response is to have a quick fling with a black Ugandan woman who shares his seat on the bus.

Later, Garrigan’s gilded-cage situation cracks when his passport is confiscated, and one of Amin’s wives (Kerri Washington), with whom he has unwisely engaged in an affair, is murdered.

Eventually, and unfortunately, in the last reel, “Last King of Scotland” morphs into a political thriller, not unlike “The Killing Fields, revolving around Garrigan’s chances to escape both Amin’s insanity and his own folly, before becoming victim of Amin’s murderous insanity. In yet another case of fate and irony, Garrigan’ only escape route comes in 1976, when pro-Palestinian hijackers land an Air France passenger airliner in Uganda and Amin comes to their aid.

The film’s central issues, the price of extreme naivete when confronted by radical political conditions, how easy it is to be sucked into a dictatorial regime of a persuasive tyrant on the other, are presented in a powerful way. And though the movie deals with a particular historical figure and specific circumstances, its theme–call it the doctor’s dilemma–is broader in significance and application to other corrupt regimes that have abused good professional men. As Amin’s personal doctor, Garrigan plunges deep into the morass of the horror he unleashes upon his own people.

In a bravura performance, Whitaker brings out the charm of the tyrant, based on his own insecurities and fears, as well as the terror. Whitaker’ Amin is an eccentric, wild, absurd, and dangerous. Watch him compete with friends and colleagues at swimming by starting before the gun goes off. Watch him array himself and his troops in kilts to celebrate his bizarre notion of Scottishness, and even more bizarre and perverse affection for European colonial powers.

The movie benefits immensely from lead James McAvoy, a hot actor at the moment, who holds the entire narrative together. Brash, charismatic, and sexy, McAvoy effortlessly carries the film with his dominant performance that shakes off completely memories of his charming, lighter turn as Mr. Tumnus in “Chronicles of Narnia.”

For all its awkward blend of fact and fiction, the film’s portrait of an evil soul, is perhaps more relevant to our politically-charged and dangerous times than 30 years ago, when the story is set.

The film was shot in Uganda, and MacDonald, production designer Michael Carlin, composer Alex Heffes, and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle are effective in evoking early 1970s period, showing attention to detail, color, and, movement. The early, lighter scenes as Garrigan arrives in Uganda are done with bright color, dancing, and music. Then the color palette grows darker, reflecting the more somber and ominous tones of the story.

As noted, in its political ambitions, the movie recalls “Killing Fields,” “Hotel Rwanda,” and this year’s “Catch a Fire,” all films made by Western directors about a “foreign and exotic” culture from a distinctly white POV.

Like those films, “Last King of Scotland” tries to convey the horror of Amin’s regime by showing the trials of one white character, caught in the wrong place due to his (and others) doing. Never mind that Amin and his troops are murdering mostly black people, including Garrigan’s friends and lover, and enemies hat are both real and imaginary. It will be interesting to see the reaction to this largely ethnocentric film in non-Western countries, and particularly in Africa.

I don’t think MacDoald is intentionally careless or neglectful of the atrocities against blacks people, but by anchoring the horror tale (and it’s horror) in one white character for dramatic and identification purposes, he throws the film off-balance, opening himself to the same charges that critics made against “Missisippi Burning” (about the civil rights struggles from white perspective) and Richard Attenborough’s “Cry Freedom,” in which the central character (played by Kevin Kline) was also white.

The film’s other problem derives from the uncomfortable blend of genres. What begins as an imaginative psychological study of the seductive nature of political power gradually evolves into a more conventional thriller about escape which, dangerous as it is, doesn’t resolve the central conundrum of how responsible was Carrigan for his own fate.

Was it just a case of Western naivete gone wrong? Foolish self-centeredness shattered by a political disaster? Self-delusion based on fate, coincidence or circumstance?

See for yourself: Last King of Scotland is one of a kind.