Monday, January 22, 2007

The Last King of Scotland (Movie Review)

If The Last King of Scotland isn't the best film of 2006, at the very least Forest Whitaker certainly delivers the best male performance.*

And I say that knowing full well that I've missed many great films from last year's calendar. It's just that I can't imagine it getting any better than this.

Whitaker stars as Idi Amin, the (real-life) President of Uganda for much of the 1970s. Amin was a military general who overthrew the previous prime minister, a coup supported by Ugandans and the international community alike.

Amin was charismatic; he had ties to the British Army; and — most interestingly — he was in awe of all things relating to Scotland (a fondness which, in part, would later lead him to call himself the "King of Scotland").

But this story is not told through Amin's eyes. Rather, this film places a Scottish doctor at its center, with James McAvoy playing Nicholas Garrigan... a doctor fresh out of a med school in search of adventure (or, at the very least, a means to delay his predictable life's story). Garrigan arrives in Uganda to volunteer his expertise to an impoverished village, an occasion that coincides with Amin's rise to power.

Their paths expectedly cross — thereby giving way to the rest of the film's narrative. But rather than risk ruining the plot, I won't divulge the nature of their idiosyncratic relationship. But I will say that this films spans nearly every degree of emotion, from light-hearted frivolity to absolute horror (and just about everything in-between).

This is not, shall we say, a film to take your kids to.

But it is a film that explores some very complicated issues: psychological collapse; political instability; and blind colonialism, among others.

And perhaps what I loved most about The Last King of Scotland wasn't so much Whitaker's amazing performance as it was the ever-changing tone. That is to say, The Last King isn't the steady surge of gore and violence that marked Apocalypto. And while it's true you'll be subjected to a couple stomach-churning scenes in The Last King... there's also much more to the story.

My main grievance with The Last King is simultaneously an element that perhaps made the film all the more compelling: the intermingling of fact with fiction, with no clear way to discern one from the other. Did Doctor Nicholas Garrigan actually exist, for example? I don't believe so. But the possibility sure makes things interesting.

And yet, I also battled with "Garrigan" for other reasons. I couldn't help but wonder if he was created (likely based in part on a British colleague of Amin's; in part on Amin's Ugandan health minister) to typify the white man's ongoing — and at times completely ignorant — paternalistic treatment of the African continent. Or, rather, if he existed primarily to make the film more "palatable" for a white audience.

On one hand, I couldn't entirely get rid of the nagging feeling that it's the latter.

On the other... I appreciated what was possibly the filmmaker's subtle treatment of the "Scottish" physician. His role in The Last King is more complex than immediately meets the eye.


*I do believe the Golden Globes have supported this assertion

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