The Last King of Scotland
2006Director: Kevin MacDonald
Cast: Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington
et in the 1970s, as Idi Amin rose to power in Uganda, The Last King of Scotland is the story of Nicholas Garrigan, a young Scotsman fresh out of medical school who becomes Amin’s physician and closest personal advisor. Blinded by his comfortable surroundings and Amin’s infectious charm, Garrigan sits idly as Amin’s regime exterminates opponents, dissidents, and just about anyone else it pleases. By the time he realizes the grand inhumanity that has taken place, it’s too late for countless Ugandans—and very nearly himself.
It’s hard to feel much sympathy for Garrigan. As is the case for so many brought up in a life of privilege, he’s always unhappy. Graduating from medical school in Scotland and stepping effortlessly into a fruitful career alongside his father just isn’t good enough. Nicholas wants adventure and intrigue; he’s open to humanitarian service—as long as he can have fun doing it. With the sort of vanity and ignorant bliss that only opulence can afford, he lands in Uganda by spinning a globe and blindly selecting his destination.
Nicholas does struggle in his quest to do good. He is brave and potentially righteous, and many of his problems would be instantly solved if he simply learned how to keep his pants on. But affluence breeds delusions of invincibility—not unlike those that envelope the man he works for. This parallel, one of an ingenious pair employed in the film, cannot be overstated. Amin truly believes he’s doing the right thing—even while torturing political opponents, forcibly deporting Asians from his country, and suppressing any hint of reform or progress. Not unlike another infamous populist recently seen on the big screen—All the King’s Men’s Willie Stark (in a heavy-handed portrayal by Sean Penn)—Amin sees himself as above the system.
Garrigan’s aforementioned blundering represents the other subtle, significant parallel of the film. As Garrigan’s arrogance gets in the way of true understanding, so too did the European colonial powers in Africa. Instead, we get various means of repression like apartheid or (more subtly) the installation of dictators like Amin. The film manages the parallel with eerie precision—viewers are left without a doubt as to who the real victims of the tragedy are.
Playing a strategic lunatic is one of the toughest jobs an actor can undertake—just ask Penn, whose weighty version of Stark was simultaneously decried and lauded—but Forest Whitaker handles Idi Amin with aplomb. It’s rare for an actor to fit so well into his role, rarer still for him to have the screenplay and direction to immortalize that role. Whitaker has both for most of the film, save a handful of occasions where carelessness allows out-of-place colloquialisms to mar an otherwise potent scene.
McAvoy’s Garrigan—as despicable as some viewers will find his character’s initial motivations—also deserves recognition. Closely resembling a young Al Pacino, McAvoy plays up Garrigan’s nefarious urges boldly and convincingly, holding his own alongside Whitaker. Finally, there’s Kerry Washington. She plays Kay, Amin’s wife, with earnest valor—making the abrupt transition from Little Man to The Last King of Scotland completely and effortlessly.
Any film about the massacre of hundreds of thousands is an inherently painful experience. But with the masterful, humanizing work by Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland manages a level of personality rare in a film about large-scale atrocities. It’s a poignant, worthy addition to the growing canon of films about Africa’s unremitting plight.
The Last King of Scotland is now playing in limited release.
By: Imran J. Syed
Published on: 2006-11-16