The Last King of Scotland Review

Scotland, the early 1970s. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) has just qualified as a doctor. Finding home life stifling, he decides to go to whichever country his finger lands upon on a globe…Uganda. He arrives at a time of turmoil: Obote’s government has been overthrown by a coup led by General Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker). A chance meeting with Amin leads to Nicholas becoming his personal physician and advisor. At first Nicholas is taken in by the General’s charisma, but it soon becomes clear how dangerous the man is…

As he was deposed in 1979 and out of the public eye until his death in 2003, you probably have to be of a certain age to remember Idi Amin. But for much of the 1970s, and certainly before Nelson Mandela, he was probably the most famous African in the world – a larger than life character, full of surface charm but also a brutal dictator who killed some 300,000 of his own people. He’s someone that cinema has returned to now and again: there were three films (one a TV movie) made about the incident when Palestinians – supported by Amin - hijacked an Airbus at Entebbe International Airport, and the plane was raided and the hostages freed by Israeli-led forces. That incident is the backdrop to the climax of the present film. There was also the reputedly exploitative 1981 biopic, Amin: The Rise and Fall. And not to forget the real thing in Barbet Schroeder’s 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada, which is being released in the UK on DVD at the same time as The Last King of Scotland.

However, although Amin was undoubtedly a real person and many incidents in the story are based on fact, The Last King of Scotland is a work of fiction. It is based on a novel by Giles Foden, who appears in the film as a journalist at Amin’s press conference. Nicholas Garrigan is fictional, though he is inspired by several real people. The Last King of Scotland is a variation on an age-old story: the man seduced by the dark side, and is in almost too deep to get out when he realises his predicament. The film is the first fictional piece directed by Kevin Macdonald, who has previously made some inspired documentaries such as One Day in September and Touching the Void. The Last King of Scotland works best in its semi-documentary moments, but is less effective when it becomes a thriller (with some moments which will disturb the squeamish) in its last half hour, relying as it does on plot contrivances and downright stupid behaviour from Garrigan. The cinematographer is Anthony Dod Mantle, no stranger to documentary-like aesthetics with his work for Lars Von Trier and the Dogme movement.

The undoubted standout is Forest Whitaker’s rightly much-awarded performance as Amin. He has the big build (though he’s not quite so dark-skinned as the real thing) and an accent that seemed accurate to these admittedly non-expert ears. He’s also captured Amin’s ability to turn on a sixpence from humour to raging violent paranoia. Whitaker dominates every scene he is in to such an extent that he unbalances the film: it’s hard to realise that he is ultimately a supporting character in this story. James McAvoy has always been an engaging actor, which goes some way to redeeming a stupid, vain man – more than once led by his libido - who ends the film with more than one man’s blood on his hands. However, it’s a fault of the screenplay by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock that Garrigan’s moral compromising doesn’t carry the weight that it should. Kerry Washington is effective as Kay, one of Amin’s wives, whom Garrigan fatally falls for. Gillian Anderson (with a cutglass English accent) has her moments as a fellow doctor Garrigan works with and has an unrequited attraction to, though she only appears once and briefly after the first half hour.

The Last King of Scotland is a well-made film containing some good performances and one superb one. I was uneasy about some of the ways it mixed fact with fiction – particularly the love-story subplot between Garrigan and Kay, and the way the film uses Kay’s real-life fate. However, there are still more reasons to see this film than not to see it.

Fox’s DVD of The Last King of Scotland is encoded for Region 2 only. On loading the disc, it begins with trailers for Rocky Balboa, Notes on a Scandal, The Fountain, Pathfinder and Sunshine. However, these can be fast-forwarded or skipped.

The Last King of Scotland was shot in Super 16, and shown in Scope in cinemas. This gives the film a vibrant though unslick, slightly grainy look that suits the material perfectly. In Uganda, which is most of the film, Don Mantle’s camerawork is strongly colourful, and ably meets the age-old challenge of including a fair-skinned white person (McAvoy) and a dark-skinned black person (most of the rest of the cast, especially Whitaker) in the same frame and ensuring that both are properly lit. Shadow detail, particularly important here, is fine. The transfer is in the ratio of 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced.

The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1 at 448 kbps. It’s an immersive track, with considerable use of the surrounds for ambience and directional effects. The subwoofer gets called into play too, for gunshots and to fill in the low end of the music played on screen. There is an audio-descriptive track which is also in 5.1, but at the lower rate of 384 kbps. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are provided for the feature, the commentary and all of the extras.

Kevin Macdonald provides a solid commentary, detailing how he came to be attached to the project – he’d by chance read Foden’s novel several years before – and the process of making the film, much of it on location in Africa. Macdonald is an interesting speaker and this is a worthwhile commentary.

There are seven deleted or extended scenes, with a “Play All” function and an optional commentary by Macdonald, presented in 4:3 and timecoded. The scenes are: “Uganda, 1948” (1:47), “The Mission” (0:30), “Good Times (Alternate)” (1:38), “Idi’s Test/Nicholas’s Suit” (1:28), “The Same Woman” (1:06), “The Press Conference (Alternate)” (4:15), “Stone Leaves/Nicholas Prepares” (1:17). Generally it’s easy to see why these were cut, usually for reasons of pace or redundancy.

“Capturing Idi Amin” (29:06) is an effective making-of documentary. It combines archive footage of the real Amin, behind-the-scenes footage and interviews, not just with the principal cast and crew but also with Jon Snow, who met Amin several times as a BBC foreign correspondent. Also on the disc is an interview with Forest Whitaker (6:01) about playing Amin, and Fox Movie Channel Casting Session: The Last King of Scotland (8:37), which is a short making-of featurette. Finally there are the theatrical trailer (2:15) and a weblink to Fox’s site.

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