The Last King Of Scotland Review
Forest Whitaker gives a sensational performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King Of Scotland. So vividly charming and terrifying is he that I wished all the more that the movie had been about him. It's not however, it's the fictional tale of Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) a naive, Scottish medical school graduate who, through an accident of fate, ends up as Amin's personal physician.
I don't have a problem with the premise. It's a matter of record that Idi Amin had a great love of all things Scottish and that he was prone to make eccentric decisions. He might easily have appointed this young man his doctor. The problem I have with the film is that, rather than use its premise to explore the character of Amin and life under his rule in Uganda, The Last King Of Scotland is more interested in telling Garrigan's story, which follows the well-worn formula of the wide-eyed young man who's charmed by the devil - imagine Wall Street, transposed to 1970s Africa.
If you're not familiar with Amin, you'll learn very little about him from this movie, less than you would even from a glance at Wikipedia. I'd recommending looking that up before you go. Historical events flash by with only the briefest of explanations, from Amin's coup in 1970, through the expulsion of Uganda's Indian minority in 1972, to the hostage crisis when Palestinian hijackers landed an Air France jet at Entebbe Airport in 1976. The movie gets some of its facts wrong. Four of the Air France hostages were killed, not one as stated at the end.
Rather than take us behind the scenes of these events, which were headline news thirty years ago, the film merely uses them as a backdrop as we see Garrigan transformed from a rebellious young man who wants to leave home to an idealist practicing in the jungles of Uganda (there's a nice cameo from Gillian Anderson as a fellow doctor's wife) to the unwitting crony of a tyrant and finally to a man with his eyes opened, frightened and appalled at the company in which he finds himself. In the last half hour, the film becomes a thriller and it's over-directed to a pounding crescendo by Kevin Macdonald.
As the subject matter for a movie, this is nowhere near as fascinating as a straight biopic of Amin might have been. Still, it could have worked on its chosen level if Garrigan had been a compelling character. He's not, he's an idiot and a pretty obnoxious one. Or are we supposed to find his cockiness, his slurs against "the fucking English" and his sleeping with friends' wives appealingly cheeky?
His behaviour is so stupid, it's hard to take an interest in his fate. He's oblivious to what's going on around him for much too long. He fails to leave when he sees how dangerous the country is. He gets people killed. He agrees to do things no sane person would do. Then, late in the movie, long after he's learned what kind of a man Idi Amin is, he starts boning one of his wives. Seriously. If you can still sympathise with him after that, you have a greater tolerance for fools than I do.
It's not fair to blame James McAvoy for playing the character on the page. He comes off well in some of his scenes with Whitaker, particularly his last when Garrigan finally grows some balls and tells Amin what he thinks of him. It's just a shame that Whitaker's superb portrayal of the dictator, which is justifiably winning him award nominations, is a mere supporting character in the rite of passage of a complete prat.
Why did this film need to be about Garrigan, or any fictional, white westerner? Amin, like Robert Mugabe, was an African monster, whose supporters, enemies and victims were almost all black Africans. Twenty years after Richard Attenborough made Cry Freedom about Donald Woods instead of Steve Biko, why do movies about Africa still need to have white characters front and centre, preferably naive idealists needing to have their eyes opened to the horrors of the continent? With the honourable exception of Hotel Rwanda, this has been true of practically all recent mainstream films on the subject - there have been Bruce Willis and Monica Bellucci in Tears Of The Sun, Clive Owen and Angelina Jolie in Beyond Borders, Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman in The Interpreter, Ralph Fiennes in The Constant Gardener, Hugh Dancy and John Hurt in Shooting Dogs and, next up, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly in Blood Diamond.
Is it racism? I doubt it. There are plenty of black stars now who could take the lead. Will Smith's as big as anyone on the screen. Is it that white liberal inclination to make issue movies about white liberals agonising about the issue rather than make them about the issue itself? Maybe. Or is it, most likely, the filmmakers' patronising belief that the white audience needs its hand held? That we need to see people looking and talking like us or we won't get involved? That we can empathise with Will Smith playing an American single dad but not an African?
Strange, last weekend I watched an action film set against a backdrop of Mayan culture, shot in the Mayan language with unknown American Indian actors. I'm talking of course about Apocalypto. It's one of the most accessible, mainstream films you could imagine: a visceral thriller that grabs you by the throat and never lets up. I watched it in a packed multiplex cinema and no one in the audience seemed put out that Tom Cruise wasn't in it.