Movie Review: THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (2006)

last king of scotland

The Last King of Scotland (2006) — ***1/2

Until I watched The Last King of Scotland, I didn’t believe that cinema’s rekindled love affair with Africa was hitting the right notes. The InterpreterBlood Diamond and even Hotel Rwanda all made the mistake of making a statement and not a film.

The Last King of Scotland never gets caught up in the politics of the situation on a macro level like its predecessors. Instead we are forced to look at the state of affairs through the eyes of one man whose lone turning of a blind eye commands more attention than any film pointing its finger at the world.

Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) is the one man I’m speaking of. After graduating from medical school in 1971, Garrigan passes up a quick transition into life as a family physician to become a village doctor in Uganda. Just as he arrives, Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) takes power from a corrupt government. He’s a powerful, charismatic populist who promises changes that will make Uganda the envy of the African continent. But as much as Amin is charming, he’s equally paranoid.

Garrigan gets caught up in Amin’s gregarious political lifestyle when by happenstance Garrigan is required to mend Amin’s hand after an accident. Amin equally takes a liking to the Scottish doctor. Their relationship isn’t complex, mostly because Garrigan doesn’t want it to be complex. When the realities of the mass killing Amin orchestrates hit home, the young doctor must find a way out.

At the heart, The Last King of Scotland is a morality tale. A young man lives a lavish lifestyle, ignoring the events around him and in the end pays a ghastly price. That price isn’t nearly as terrible as the atrocities that occurred while he didn’t care to care. That makes The Last King of Scotland thematically more substantial than any other film about Africa in many years.

The film’s success lies in its ability to make Garrigan represent the white men who have taken advantage of Africa for centuries. Instead of the U.N. General Assembly, instead of international peacekeepers, instead of diamond importers, we are able to focus on one man’s selfishness as if it was our own.

Of course, that doesn’t leave much room for Garrigan to fully flourish as his own character. James McAvoy copes by taping into his own charm and talent. The film, however, belongs not to McAvoy, but to Forest Whitaker who does something rarely seen with a role that could be overplayed. Whitaker focuses on his own idiosyncrasies to develop a loud populist dictator into an interesting, albeit unstable human.

Philip Seymour Hoffman did this last year with Truman Capote, not focusing on imitation, but rather internalization. As Amin, Whitaker steps into the skin of a character he wouldn’t usually take on and succeeds without compromise.

The Last King of Scotland is directed by Kevin Macdonald, whose documentary with dramatic reenactments (Touching The Void) acted as the perfect bridge between his life as a documentarian and a narrative filmmaker. With The Last King of Scotland now under his belt, Macdonald will likely move onto bigger and better projects confident in his ability to tell a story like few other filmmakers seem to be able to do.

Those stories may not be as important as The Last King of Scotland is right now, but I’ll be surprised if the next story this director tells isn’t as sharply focused. He and his actors are all just hitting their stride. Yes that includes the veteran Whitaker, who after The Last King of Scotlandwill finally become the household name he deserves to be.

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