If you have ever seen Forest Whitaker in an interview, than you knows how truly amazing his performance in “The Last King of Scotland” is. Whitaker in real life comes across as soft-spoken, shy and passive. As 1970s Ugandan dictator Idi Amin he is the exact opposite: magnetic, charismatic, boisterous and ultimately terrifying.
Whitaker’s central performance, which deserves all the praise and awards it has received, anchors and elevates a good, but flawed film.
The film’s approach is to tell the story from the perspective of Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy, “The Lion the Witch and Wardrobe”), a fictional Scottish physician, who through a chance encounter with Amin becomes his personal physician and most trusted advisor.
Nicholas is meant to be the audience’s point of entry into a world that we are unfamiliar with. He is taken in by Amin’s charm, dynamic personality and the luxurious life that he is thrust into. McAvoy has a likable screen presence and when things take a turn for the worst you are concerned for him. The film occasionally sags though when it becomes too focused on Nicholas. A love affair with one of Amin’s wives feels forced and formulaic.
Whitaker’s performance is so overwhelmingly powerful that it overshadows everyone around him, but McAvoy’s performance is strong and puts him on the map as an up-and-coming actor to watch.
Nicholas is an interesting character because it isn’t that he knows what is happening and chooses to ignore it, but rather he doesn’t allow himself to see it because he wants to believe Amin is everything he says he is. McAvoy makes Nicholas’ descent from naïve and jovial to fearful and increasingly desperate to escape believable. He holds his own against Whitaker, which is no easy feat given the size of Whitaker’s performance.
Saying Whitaker’s performance is large doesn’t mean it is over-the-top, at least no more than it needs to be. Whitaker is playing an over-the-top figure, but what makes the performance so extraordinary is that doesn’t become broad or campy. Buried within the booming performance is subtleties, a look or a gesture, that go deeper. Whitaker’s performance doesn’t necessarily make Amin a sympathetic figure or excuse his horrific actions, but does reveal a man consumed by delusions and paranoia.
The structure of seeing and being taken into Amin’s world from an outside perspective is fine, but there’s a certain amount of pandering. At times it feels like it was assumed audiences would only accept this story if seen through the eyes of an Anglo, but this is a flaw of the source material, the novel by Giles Foden, not the film.
Foden moved from England to Africa with his parents when he was five, so it makes sense that his fictionalized account of Amin would take the approach it does. Amin really did have a close white advisor, a former British soldier, who according to a Bold Type interview with Foden “became part of his (Amin’s) apparatus of repression.”
The fictional Nicholas does not directly become part of the mechanism of death and destruction under Amin, but by choosing not to see it, he allows it to happen. When he can no longer remain blind and he finally begins to see Amin’s murderous, darker side he is in far too deep.
Director Kevin McDonald’s (“Touching the Void”) previous work is documentary based, but the style he employs here isn’t that of the currently popular pseudo-documentary. This is solid narrative based filmmaking featuring some beautiful cinematography of Africa.
The film’s pace is slow, and while Nicholas is in his bubble, relatively light, but once his eyes are open the film becomes increasingly tense. The final third is a literal palm-sweater. I soaked through my jeans.
Those expecting a detailed account of this time period will be disappointed. This is not a history lesson, but certainly does prompt the desire to look further into this dark chapter of recent history. Most of the Amin’s horrors happen off camera. The glimpses that are shown, particularly a torture scene, are gruesome, hard to watch and leave a lasting impression.