The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, October 28, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - The Last King of Scotland

Full review behind the jump

The Last King of Scotland

: Kevin Macdonald
: Jeremy Brock and Peter Morgan, based on the novel by Giles Foden
: Lisa Bryer, Andrea Calderwood, Christine Ruppert, Charles Steel
: Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Gillian Anderson, Simon McBurney, David Oleyowo

When everyone else’s brow is clean and dry, Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) is sweating. It’s as if his whole being is consumed with a fever, or perhaps that his paranoid mind is clocking at too high a speed for his body to handle. And there’s something about his eyes – you can feel that there’s power there, and that if his stared straight into yours you might wither away. But there’s something else too – absolute madness.

The narrow divide between divine inspiration and lunacy is all in the eyes in
The Last King of Scotland, which takes its title from one of the many honors Ugandan dictator Amin conferred upon himself during his grievous nine-year reign. Another one was “Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea”. This was not a man who thought small. He stampeded through life, through his enemies, through his friends, through his family, and through the nation that so tragically believed he would be a different kind of ruler after one too many military coups. Whether he had a smile on his face while he did it all makes little difference to those stampeded.

All of this is communicated to me by Forest Whitaker, a veteran actor who delivers the performance of a lifetime. He is the hypnotic and terrifying center of The Last King of Scotland and absolutely the reason to see this confident and relentless film. For an actor who has projected such gentle aloofness over the years (he often comes across like a teddy bear from outer space), how unexpected that this real-life nightmare now looks like the role he was born to play.

There’s another narrow divide in this movie – between boyhood and manhood. That’s in the eyes of Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), who by a series of quirks of fate lands in Amin’s inner circle, and lives with a heedless, callow unease that indicates he knows he does not belong there, and is not growing up fast enough to keep pace with events.

He is in Uganda, it seems, for two reasons: 1) It is not England, and 2) He thinks it will annoy his father. At first he inoculates villagers and makes advances on his boss’s wife (Gillian Anderson). And then it just so happens he is the one doctor in the area when Amin breaks his hand in a traffic accident, and he just happens to be wearing his “Scotland” football jersey that day.

Amin loves the Scottish people, in part because of their history of sticking it to the English, who once ran Uganda as a colonial power and still meddle out of habit. He insists that Garrigan become personal physician to he and his family, and promises the job will be simple, for he has seen the time of his own demise in a dream and it is a long way away. You can practically hear the quiet, too easily-smothered warning bell go off in Garrigan’s head at that remark.

I saw this movie 24 hours after seeing All the King’s Men, and it strikes me as no coincidence that in both, populist leaders inspire the underprivileged with promises of roads and schools and hospitals, and end up dictators consumed by petty vendettas and personal vices. But Louisiana politics, for all its slime, doesn’t have too much of a body count; in Africa politics comes complete with armed militias and foreign intelligence officers not afraid to muck about with the lives of hundreds of thousands.

Without ever directly addressing it as a theme the movie demonstrates the tragedy of people who think they can work behind the throne of a “strongman”, never remembering that he’s the one with the power to give orders, even to order their deaths. Amin is dangerously unstable, but he is not without charm or cleverness – he knows, for example, how to appeal to the cynical Western press, which is eager to laugh and be distracted by stories of the buffoonish corruption of their own countrymen and ignore the gathering tide of horrors around them.

McAvoy, whom I thought underplayed excellently in last year’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, has a tremendous challenge before him occupying the protagonist’s position opposite Whitaker’s tour-de-force. It is because Garrigan is not so much a hero as an observer, and a victim of circumstance whose circumstances might not victimize him quite so much if he chose better company and didn’t give in to his urges so often. When other movie leads are galvanized he’s desperate, when others seek to right wrongs he fearfully seeks to escape them. I think his helplessness, the softness engendered by the comfortable life he came from and the petulance of his rebellions, act as a cocoon on him. And the irony is that cocoon is likely the reason he survives in his precarious position long enough to see what he sees.

No matter how subtly he navigates this terrain McAvoy is destined to be overshadowed, that’s the inevitability of Amin’s presence. The praise he’s due is less obvious, but no less deserved than Whitaker’s.

Director Kevin MacDonald provides an atmosphere of unease and a never-waning possibility of violence, very much like Fernando Meirelles in his masterpiece City of God. It’s the right tone for The Last King of Scotland, too; the churning slums of Rio De Janeiro are almost as scary as what is implied by a look from Whitaker’s Amin. This is one of the best films of the year.


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