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Published:October 19th, 2006 07:37 EST
The Last King of Scotland, Whitaker's Tour de Force

The Last King of Scotland, Whitaker's Tour de Force

By Anne Laszlo Howard

Summary: The Last King of Scotland, directed by Ken McDonald is based on the events of the brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin's regime as told by his fictionist Scottish physician.

Kevin McDonald’s feature film The Last King of Scotland is a departure for the director better known for his documentaries such as Touching the Void about a mountain climbing expedition gone terribly wrong, or profiling the filmmaker Errol Morris in A Brief History of Errol Morris and again with One Day in September about the 1972 Munich Olympics’ hostage crisis, days that could be described as the first world hostage crisis, for which McDonald won the Academy Award in 2000 for best documentary; even though his critics recalled disdainfully how he retold these events in the style of a thriller.

With his feature film debut The Last King of Scotland, McDonald’s style is one reminiscent of a documentary. Grainy, one even wants to say sweaty images and unsettling camera work with extreme close-up of Idi Amin's most expressive face are the norms here. And it is through those close-ups that we are initially sucked into the world of brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin's regime and that we can start to understand the spell under which Nicholas Garrigan, the recently graduate Scottish physician superbly played by James McAvoy fell victim. Idi Amin’s face at once adoring, warm, engaging and yes, rapidly becoming menacing is one so profoundly affecting that for hours following the screening of this film, I could not shake a feeling of terror.

This could be Forrest Whitaker’s tour de force, the role from which he will be remembered for, in a career already distinguished with remarkable performance and numerous awards. The forty-five year old Texan, not only impersonate the megalomaniac Idi Amin to perfection but in effect brings him back to life. The film closing credits include Barbet Schroeder’s 1974 documentary during which Idi Amin Dada accepts a foreign crew's request to interview and film him and it is near impossible to distinguish between the actor and the dictator.

Unfortunately, the film rapidly loses its essence and originality as it becomes a typical Hollywood movie by shifting its focus from Amin’s behavior to its young Scottish physician’s inability to control his sexual impulse and love for beautiful married women, even Amin’s third, to disastrous consequences for both parties. The love story is an unnecessary detour from deeper subjects that could have been tackled, such as the dictator’s outreach to Arab nations, his goal of eradicating Israel, his views on economic policy, and of Nixon, Kissinger, and other world leaders and I was left to wonder why the Director went down this path. It is almost as if the Director lacked the courage to explore deeper political and social issues for fear of losing a wider audience by truly making the audience think and felt obliged to entertain us at all cost. Too bad because we were entertained just fine with Whitaker’s memorable performance and a rare look into the African continent’s political climate of the time.

Nevertheless, this is an actor’s film, the performance by all cast including supporting roles, such as the brief appearances by Roman Polanski as a cynical government-employed Englishman are superb and any movie buff would be foolish to pass on the pleasure of watching Whitaker and other’s sterling acting. As a footnote, let me add that the soundtrack is also newsworthy, a perfect blend of traditional Ugandan and pop music of the 70s, making it hard to sit still with its hypnotic rhythm and cajoling vocals.

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