A post by Glenn Buttkus:
THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (2006)
The dynamic new film about the rise and eventual collapse of the regime of Idi Amin Dada takes place in Uganda in the 1970’s. There is a “Scottish” connection for the film that goes beyond Amin’s documented passion for all things Scottish. He named two of his sons MacKenzie and Campbell.
The director, Kevin MacDonald is Scottish. He has directed a dozen films since 1995, and mostly is known as a superb documentarian. He made HOWARD HAWKS: American Artist (1997). He won an Oscar for ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER (1999), about the 1972 terrorist attack at the Munich Olympics. A few years ago he made TOUCHING THE VOID (2003), based on a true story about a mountain climbing accident in the Andes in 1985. Oddly when one “Goggles” this director there is only a slim bounty. Most of the numerous hits belong to another Kevin MacDonald, an imminent Professor of Psychology in California. Young MacDonald directs KING with an almost documentary eye on history and real events. It is also fascinating, of course, to mix in a major character that is fictional.
This film is based on a debut novel by Giles Foden, available with a hefty 352 page read awaiting. It was reviewed as “dark but turbulent reading”. Foden inserted a fictional character right in the middle of Amin’s reign –a young Scottish doctor named Nicholas Garrigan, who after newly graduating from medical school, probably out of boredom, spins a globe, closes his eyes, and stops the spin with his finger squarely on Uganda.
James McAvoy plays Dr. Garrigan in the film. He, too, is Scottish, born in the late 70’s just as Amin was forced into exile. A handsome slight-stature actor, one is surprised to discover that in real life McAvoy is a highly skilled boxer, accomplished fencer, gymnast, acrobat, rugby player, guitarist, and actual “fire eater”. As Garrigan, however there are no heroics or grand physical feats on display. He plays a wide-eyed randy innocent charging into Africa like a tourist on a trek to London –leading the way with his crotch, his charm, and his flashing blue eyes. McAvoy has been around in films for more than a decade, fleshing out the ranks in BAND OF BROTHERS (2001), being agile and mysterious in THE CHILDREN OF DUNE (2003), and most of us remember him last year as the wonderful Tumnus, the Faun in THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA (2005).
Gillian Anderson manages a tolerable English accent, and makes a good impression in her brief scenes as the wife of a fellow doctor. She looks good as a blond, and in no time at all heated up the screen with a smoldering sexuality. Kerry Washington was effective as Amin’s third wife, Kay, who Garrigan has an affair with that ends tragically. Simon McBurney had a good turn as Nigel Stone, a twit Brit politico –oddly looking a lot like Roman Polanski in the role. Author Giles Foden did a cameo as a British journalist.
The cinematographer was Anthony Dod Mantle, and Englishman who has worked a lot with director Lars Von Trier in Europe. His camera work in KING was lush, and dripping in Ugandan heat and rich red earthen tones –even the medals and epaulets on Amin’s fancy uniforms all seemed to jump off the screen in their primary spectrum richness. They shot the film in Uganda, and that gave it a strong sense of “place” within the fabric of the tale.
The film absolutely belongs to Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin Dada. He delivered dialogue confidently in everything from a sotto voche stage whisper to a thunderous bellicose clap at the top of his voice, like a singer who has a several octave range. This is an actor at the apex of his game. He gave us an Amin that could genuinely charm, or seduce with a smile, a story, or a parable –only to explode in your face a moment later –taking the impact of a Joe Pesci performance in GOOD FELLAS (1990), and stretching it, testing it, pumping it with adrenaline. From his first entrance where he strode into the camera’s eye –he used up every inch of the lens field, filling every frame with abounding energy, using up all the air in the room, let us dazzled and nearly faint. It was not just his immensity, his 6’2” bulk –big men can be unimpressive, even invisible. He takes the concept of “dynamic” and super-charges it with a fully mature completely-realized organic smooth smirking and lethal character; unpredictable, extremely dangerous, unstable and fascinating.
Forest Whitaker has been good, very good in films for over 20 years. Who can forget his performance in THE CRYING GAME (1992), or how he broke your heart in Clint Eastwood’s BIRD (1988), made you smile and weep in PHENOMENON (1996), or intrigued you as the Black American samurai in Jim Jarmusch’s GHOST DOG (1999). Whitaker will now live strong in our minds as Idi Amin, pushing aside even the powerhouse portrayal of Amin by Yaphet Kotto in RAID ON ENTEBBE (1977), or Julius Harris as Amin in VICTORY AT ENTEBBE (1976). As a curiosity, one might take a look at Amin, playing himself before his exile in IDI AMIN DADA: A Self-Portrait (1974).
I would rate THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (2006) at 4 stars; mostly for its acting and cinematography.