Saturday, January 06, 2007

Review - The Last King of Scotland

Forest Whitaker stars as notorious Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Actually, that’s not strictly true - he doesn’t star in the film, he dominates it. With his bulky frame and softly-spoken manner, Whitaker has often been cast as a gentle giant in the past; and even when he does play a villain - such as in David Fincher’s Panic Room - he’s usually a conflicted one who often has an attack of conscience which turns him around. In The Last King of Scotland, conscience doesn’t come into it. The actor completely embodies Amin, giving a performance which is charismatic, explosive and terrifying; and the brilliance of Whitaker’s central turn always demands the viewers’ full attention, even if the film around him is too maddeningly uneven to ever exert the same kind of power.
The Last King of Scotland is an adaptation of Giles Foden’s semi-fictional novel which tells the story of a Scottish doctor’s bizarre relationship with Idi Amin. After two fantastic documentaries which used adventurous recreational techniques to illuminate their subject matter, Kevin Macdonald has made the natural progression to narrative features, and under his guidance The Last King of Scotland emerges as an fairly entertaining political thriller which struggles to bring its disparate elements (biopic, comedy, horror, thriller) together in a satisfying way.

The film opens in 1970, with Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) celebrating his graduation and looking ahead to his future as a doctor. But a life working alongside his domineering father hardly appeals, and on a whim Nicholas pulls out a globe, spinning it while closing his eyes and repeating the words “wherever it lands, you go. Wherever it lands, you go”. The young doctor actually cheats - dismissing the first choice of Canada and allowing himself a second spin - and he seems much more satisfied when he finds himself staring at Uganda. Nicholas is looking for fun, adventure and a step into the unknown, and the mysterious African nation certainly fits that bill. How different things would have been if he stuck to his first choice.

Fast-forward a few months, and Nicholas has arrived in Uganda to help out at a small mission with a doctor (Adam Kotz) and his attractive wife (Gillian Anderson). He has also arrived slap-bang in the middle of a major turning point in the country’s history, with Idi Amin leading a military coup against Prime Minister Milton Obote, much to the delight of the Ugandan people. Soon, Nicholas gets to watch Amin in action - being present at one of his rousing speeches - and then a chance encounter on a country road sees the young Scotsman treating Amin’s hand after a car accident. The general is hugely impressed by Nicholas’ decisive and ballsy attitude, and his ability to maintain control in a hectic, tense situation; and he decides this is the kind of man he needs to have around him. Nicholas is offered the chance to become Idi Amin’s personal physician and - after a short stay at the general’s opulent home - he gratefully accepts.

The odd relationship between this unlikely couple is the motor which drives The Last King of Scotland’s best moments. Amin seems to sense some sort of kinship with his new doctor, and he quickly draws him into his inner circle, asking him for his thoughts on various issues and even allowing him to act as a proxy during a meeting with Austrian officials. When they’re together Amin is often avuncular and charming, and a sense of trust grows between the pair until Nicholas is positioned as one of his most important advisors. For Nicholas, things couldn’t be better: he lives a life of luxury, drives a fast car and has gorgeous women in thrall to him; but he foolishly allows his roving eye to drift towards one of Amin’s three wives (Kerry Washington), and as he gradually realises the extent of his boss’s crimes he finds it almost impossible to extricate himself from the messy situation he has found himself in.

One of the most interesting decisions The Last King of Scotland makes is to have the central drama play out between two characters who do nothing to earn our sympathy or affection. One the one side we have a cold-blooded dictator and mass-murderer, and on the other we have a young man who is arrogant, cowardly, and often downright stupid. Nicholas is a self-serving creep who begins working in Uganda with some vague intention of doing good, but his head is easily turned by the wealth and status on offer, and when he finally acts in the second half it’s purely out of a desire to save his own skin, to pull himself out of the trouble he has brought on himself. It proves to be something of an obstacle for the film to allow this figure - effectively the audience’s surrogate - to be such an dislikeable fellow; and this curious dynamic is perhaps a reason why The Last King of Scotland never really gripped me in spite all of the things it does so well.

And the film does indeed do a lot of things well. Anthony Dod Mantle’s excellent cinematography gives the picture an exotic, burnished sheen which adds to its visceral impact; the editing is sharp and lively; and Macdonald proves adept at handling both the large-scale crowd scenes as well as the more intimate moments between Amin and Nicholas. But the film’s screenplay, by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock, is problematic. It lacks depth, and much of its contrived plotting slots together in an all-too-neat fashion. In particular, the film’s climax coincides with the Entebbe raid of 1976, but are we really supposed to believe that Nicholas has been with Amin for five years? Nothing in the film backs this up, and the compression of events into what feels like little more than a few months undermines the story‘s plausibility.

Nevertheless, The Last King of Scotland always had my attention even while it never grabbed my nerves, and the cast play a big part in the film’s appeal. At the core of everything is Whitaker, delivering a complex, multifaceted performance which fully lives up to the awards-season hype. In his first scene Amin delivers a speech to his adoring public saying “I may wear the uniform of a general, but in my heart I am a simple man”, and as he promises to make Uganda a great nation you really sense his firm belief in what he preaches. But as The Last King of Scotland progresses we are treated to a fascinating depiction of the corrupting influence of power, and Whitaker’s portrayal is mesmerising. It’s a display which exhibits charm and humour, but as Amin grows increasingly paranoid and volatile Whitaker’s performance becomes genuinely chilling, as he uses that huge physique to stunningly intimidating effect.

It’s hard for the other actors to escape from the shadow cast by this performance, and while they mostly do a sterling job I found myself missing Whitaker whenever he wasn’t the centre of attention. James McAvoy gives a solid turn as the cocky doctor who realises only too late the scale of Amin’s tyranny, and his character’s development is well mapped-out even if it’s never as affecting as it aims to be. Elsewhere, the supporting cast are uniformly fine. Simon McBurney (so enjoyable in last year’s Friends With Money) is great here as an snide British official who tries to take advantage of Nicholas’ unique position, and David Oyelowo brings dignity to his role as a doctor tired of the chaos surrounding him. As the two women in Nicholas’ life, Kerry Washington and Gillian Anderson are both impressive, with Anderson’s role proving small but significant. She is the kind of doctor Nicholas lacks the will or integrity to be, and she seems to see right through this naïve and reckless young man as soon as she sets eyes on him.
The Last King of Scotland lurches into thriller mode in its final third, with Macdonald struggling to change gears smoothly, and there are a few tense (as well as horrifically violent) moments in this climactic section, but the pat finale pretty much sums up the movie. This is nothing more than an uneven, implausible but decent little thriller which hits all the right notes without ever doing anything particularly special. However, the whole enterprise is elevated a couple of notches by an extraordinary central performance, and for that alone it should be seen. In truth, it might ultimately prove to be one of those electrifying pieces of acting which is almost too good for the film containing it - you simply can’t take your eyes off Whitaker when he’s on screen, and you can’t stop thinking about him when he’s not.