It’s very seductive when the popular and powerful want to welcome you into their inner circle, and none is more susceptible to the charms than the brash and reckless new doctor Nicholas Gerrigan.
Of course, it’s an especially dangerous proposition when the king of the popular crowd happens to be Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, at the cusp of his meteoric rise to vicious despotism.
The Last King of Scotland is a biography told like a coming-of-age drama. Nicholas, played by James McAvoy – think of him as sort of a Ewan MacGregor Lite – is a brand-new doctor in 1971 Scotland who impulsively flees a stifling future and heads to Uganda, where he arrives just after a coup installed beloved soldier-of-the-people Idi Amin, played by Forest Whitaker, as president. Nicholas is meant to provide aid at a remote, overworked rural clinic, where he makes a bee line for the older — and married — Sarah (Gillian Anderson).
But a chance meeting with Amin at the scene of a roadside accident and the president – already enamored with all things Scottish – is impressed enough with the young lad’s take charge manner to offer Nicholas a post as his personal physician. He tries to turn it down, but there are things about Amin lost amid the horror stories of his bloody regime; namely, that he was very smart, very charming, and quite persuasive. He adeptly woos Nicholas with lavish parties and references to him being the ‘most trusted advisor,’ and soon the young man has a posh apartment and a sweet Mercedes convertible and, most importantly, the ear of the president
It’s vaguely frustrating to watch Nicholas embrace the manipulation without a second thought. He might be a charismatic young man, but he’s also startlingly naïve, to the point where it borders on stupidity. (How, for instance, is he dumb enough to start making googly eyes at one of Amin’s out-of-favor wives? Even if he does not comprehend the depths to which his beloved dictator’s evil runs, there are still very few folks who look upon that behavior kindly.)
But Nicholas is obviously a device. Director Kevin Macdonald and screenwriters Jeremy Brock & Peter Morgan made Nicholas certainly interesting enough on his own, but they’ve clearly set him up as a fictional construct to better show off the facets of Amin. Through Nicholas we see him as a magnetic and charismatic man first. But he’s also wildly unpredictable, paranoid and brutal in flushing out dissidents and unfavorable opinions. As opposing voices begin to disappear at an alarming rate, Nicholas decides he wants out, but finds that the chains binding him might be a pretty silk, but they are still pretty strong. And then through Nicholas, we get to see the truly fearful depths of which Amin is capable.
Though interestingly, the blood and brutality take a while to ramp up. It would be easy to characterize Amin as a heartless, fathomless pit of evil. But Whitaker’s depiction is both wonderful and uncanny. It’s made all the more remarkable because Whitaker does not settle for the common acting-as-impersonation technique so popular (and so rewarded!) with fine actors playing real-life figures. His Amin is a full, complex character, equal parts charming and deep scariness, as if he teeters on the apex between brilliance and evil. And the atrocities he commits are never glossed over, they just take a while to show up (though when they do, it suddenly becomes quite hard to keep looking at the screen).
Using such a simple and oft-used structure – it’s really just Mean Girls, with more bloody warlords – it’s a wonder Last King of Scotland doesn’t feel more clichéd or predictable. And there are times where the direction veers alarmingly off course, with the poetic interludes on insect close ups and the camera’s inexplicable fascination with Amin’s hands. But the conventions serve to showcase Whitaker’s very deserving performance as Amin, and the film is far more straightforward than fanciful. It’s hardly a fun movie, but the sense of inevitability to Uganda’s tragic deterioration give the movie something more vivid and interesting than the bland and bloated based-on-a-true-story Oscar bait movies that will be showing up in theatres right about… now.
DVD extras include a commentary track, deleted scenes, a featurette on Whitaker, and a documentary about capturing Amin’s essence on film.
Go Idi, it’s your birthday.