Last King of Scotland, The (United Kingdom, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Last King of Scotland, in addition to having one of the most misleading titles of any movie to open this Oscar season, could also be 2006's Hotel Rwanda. Like last year's sadly overlooked feature, this one peers into another troubled African nation: Uganda. The Last King of Scotland explores the turmoil and troubles surrounding the beginning of one of the country's darkest recent periods: the Idi Amin regime, which lasted from 1971 through 1979 and resulted in thousands upon thousands of deaths. (The exact number is unknown, but is estimated to be between 80,000 and 500,000.) Based on actual events, the movie takes us into Amin's inner circle through the eyes of an outsider who is initially charmed by the charismatic leader until Amin's true nature begins to bubble to the surface.

In 1971, newly graduated Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) quits Scotland for Uganda to escape the talons of his overbearing father. Nicholas arrives in the African nation around the time that a military coup puts General Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) into power. Amin is a magnetic and popular leader. When he is injured in an automobile accident, Nicholas is the nearest doctor, and he is brought to attend to the wound. Amin is taken with the young Scotsman, and offers him a position as personal physician to the President. It's a job Nicholas can't refuse, although he will come to wish he had done so. At first, his experience living at Amin's residence is entirely positive, but as the ruler's paranoia begins to assert itself, Nicholas discovers that no one is safe. His own status is tenuous, especially since he is having an affair with Amin's neglected third wife (Kerry Washington). Every day, Amin relies more on his soldiers and less on his non-military advisors, and his enemies begin disappearing en masse.

Although Amin is not the lead character, he is the focal point of the narrative. This is about the dissolution of his character. At the outset, he is an affable charismatic man, an individual with great aspirations for his country. His descent into paranoia and butchery is shown to be a gradual process, although there are plenty of warning signs which no one heeds. As Amin rightly points out, Nicholas views his participation in the Ugandan government as something of a game until he's in too deep to be able to extricate himself without help. The British government is all too willing to provide that aid, but there's a price to pay, and Nicholas is no assassin.

Solid performances help make this a worthwhile film. McAvoy, who is probably best known as Mr. Tumnnus in The Chronicles of Narnia, shows range as Nicholas - from the light-hearted, outgoing doctor who enters Uganda to the trapped, fearful man who finds his options narrowing as his position as Amin's "trusted advisor" becomes tenuous. Forest Whitaker is a scene-stealer, bringing the right mix of passion, charisma, and monstrosity to his portrayal of the Ugandan leader. Whitaker's Amin is larger than life - a figure equally capable of inspiring great love and great terror. Gillian Anderson has a supporting role as the wife of a doctor with whom Nicholas first works upon his arrival in Uganda.

The Last King of Scotland does not refrain from showing the brutality of what Amin's reign becomes. The film contains its share of gruesome images, including a torture scene that depicts in unflinching detail what happens to someone who betrays Amin. Director Kevin Macdonald has fashioned a film that is at times nearly as harrowing as his previous endeavor, Touching the Void. The Last King of Scotland isn't for everyone, but for those who can stomach its brutality, it offers a compelling look into how such a popular leader became known as one of Africa's most vicious dictators of the 1970s.

Last King of Scotland, The (United Kingdom, 2006)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2006-09-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1