Director: Kevin Macdonald
Starring: James McAvoy, Forest Whitaker
When it comes to historical biopics, as with anything do with history, there’s always a tough balancing act between sticking to the facts and entertaining the viewer. In the case of brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, you wouldn’t imagine that much embellishment would be required to hold the audience’s interest; after coming to power on a wave of popular opinion, he was deposed eight years later after a regime consisting of, among other things, human rights abuses, corruption, and political repression, as well as over 300,000 murders.
The Last King of Scotland takes a different narrative tact from many other historical biopics, telling Amin’s (Forest Whitaker) story through the eyes of another, the largely fictional Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy). Garrigan is a young, womanising doctor from Scotland who is appointed as Amin’s physician after a chance meeting. He is wooed by Amin’s magnetic personality, and his loyalty and affection for the self-titled “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Alhaji Dr. Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, CBE” contradicts his growing realisation of Amin’s true character.
There is no contest for the outstanding feature of The Last King of Scotland. As anyone who has seen The Crying Game will know, international accents aren’t exactly Whitaker’s forte, but his portrayal of Amin is little short of scintillating, as he teeters brilliantly between jovial charm and unnerving rage from one minute to the next. The overall portrayal of Amin is very honest. It is of course very easy to look back at figures such as Amin in retrospect and characterise them as nothing more than psychopathic brutes, but The Last King of Scotland is forthcoming in showing the other side of Amin, the allure and charisma that was crucial in his initial popularity. His portrayal retains its multiple facets throughout, as his increasing brutality is shown as a result of his relentless paranoia rather than a senseless blood lust.
The narrative moves along at a fair rate of knots, and the level of interest rarely wanes, thanks mainly to Whitaker’s performance. The direction mirrors the deterioration in Garrigan’s opinion of Amin and in Uganda as a whole, with the early scenes sun-drenched and filled with drum beats, and the latter stages slipping into a psychedelic homage to Apocalypse Now, with Garrigan playing the role of Willard, at once enamoured with Amin and yet terrified of him, and Amin as the Kurtz figure, shrouded in a haze of mystery and lazy cross-fades.
Unfortunately, the trade off in narrative fluidity is historical accuracy. Whilst Garrigan’s inclusion as the main character makes for an entertaining movie, it damages the film as a whole by making it difficult to ascertain what is fact and what is fiction. It’s a real shame, particularly as it threatens to detract from the power of Whitaker’s portrayal of Amin. Overall, an entertaining film, although Whitaker’s sensational performance is deserving of a more conventional, and historically accurate treatment.