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Last King of Scotland

A movie directed by Kevin MacDonald

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The Last King of Scotland -- Forrest Whitaker is great, otherwise eehhhhh

  • Oct 13, 2010

The Last King of Scotland is one of those movies that I just didn’t quite grasp. Unfortunately this is more likely to happen with me if the film is an Oscar type movie that gets gangbuster reviews.

Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) graduates with his MD. Rather than stay in Scotland and practice family medicine with his father, he spins the globe and (after his finger lands on Canada, he tries again) his finger lands on Uganda. He goes into the wilds of Uganda to join another MD and his wife who are running a clinic there. Shortly after Garrigan arrives, the new leader of Uganda Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) makes a visit to a nearby village. On his way back to the village Garrigan’s car is overtaken by a military vehicle—they need the doctor because Amin had been hurt in an accident. Garrigan fixes what is only a sprained wrist. After this, Amin invites Garrigan to be his and his family’s physician. He reluctantly accepts then gets caught up in the aura of power. Because in the beginning he is willing to speak truth to power, Garrigan becomes more than just the family doctor. Intrigue follows that pits the British foreign service against Amin with Garrigan caught in the middle—any more of the plot would spoil it.

Likely plot spoilers in the analysis

I thought this movie was going to be about Amin; it really isn’t. It is very much like Amadeus in this respect—there you expected to see a lot about Mozart; instead you get lots of Saliari (and F. Murray Abraham played the forgotten composer and received an Oscar despite the actor of the eponymous character got nominated but ignored). The movie is about Nicholas Garrigan. Though he doesn’t truly narrate the movie as Abraham did in Amadeus the narrative definitely focuses on him and his relationship with the dictator. Looking back, I can’t think of a single scene with Amin where Garrigan wasn’t involved, but there are plenty of scenes with Garrigan and not Amin. This just seemed to be way out of balance to me. Especially with all the “best performance in a generation” quips handed out like Mardi Gras beads about Mr. Whitaker’s performance.

I have liked Mr. Whitaker’s work before and find his performance here to be good but not great, and not the greatest in a generation. The main reason for this is that the character he plays is someone with no subtlety. The real Amin chewed the boards as the cliché goes; so does Mr. Whitaker. This isn’t necessarily all bad, but it isn’t all good either. Since he is playing basically a couple of Kabuki characters mixed in a blender, his overacting is consistent. Further, since he is likely to blow up at any moment over anything large or small, there is the constant threat of violence, so he is good at creating tension. But the thing to keep in mind is that he only does this with Garrigan in the room. I don’t know if Mr. McAvoy deserved a nomination, but the simple fact is, whoever played that role would be the one who set up and then took whatever eruptions Mr. Whitaker was going to have, and it would still be more about Garrigan than Amin.

In short, Amin was the supporting character. Yes he was the one that got to blow up and scream and pound his chest, but there is no subtlety there. That is like playing the heroine in a horror movie—anyone can scream, but it takes someone truly skilled in the craft to scare the wits out of you without making a sound. This is not meant to say that Mr. Whitaker was bad, just that the character he played was always on a full blast. In that respect I can’t see it as at all fun or interesting to play, just exhausting. Here I think the responsibility rests on director Kevin MacDonald and screenwriter Peter Morgan.

I think there were women in the film. I seem to recall that Gillian Anderson played some sort of medical role in the beginning, but she fades away, literally, during the historically accurate expulsion of Asians from Uganda. There is a character called Kay, but she is here, not here, here, then not here in an ultimate way (a way that would chill even the most fervent Saw fan). Like Jarhead and other very masculine films, if there are women in the film they are only there to be used then tossed aside. From a completely personal stand point, I don’t know why they even bother with that kind of thing (basically some gratuitous sex). The story could then focus on some more real intrigue than a tacked on sex story in what is otherwise a boys’ tale.

I didn’t hate the film, but I don’t think it deserved the accolades it got. The acting is decent but not great. The filmmaking shows signs of near brilliance when you can see Amin’s fuse lit and then watch as he blows, but it is otherwise just average for the multitude of scenes where this does not occur. The writing was ok, but spotty. It doesn’t give a good understanding of the passage of time. It is as if all of this took place in the course of a couple of weeks instead of several years. Amin was in power for almost 7 years, yet there are few markers to point to this.

Finally the film just stops. The Entebbe raid is setup but not completed when the wrap up occurs—we are told that after Entebbe, world opinion went universally against the man responsible for over three hundred thousand dead countrymen and women. At least with Amadeus we got the death of Mozart and the semi-deluded Saliari self-cast as the saint of mediocrity; in The Last King of Scotland we get a few facts splashed on the screen then credits. It wasn’t a waste of time, but it was so far from the billing that it was in a different arena playing a different sport (to torture a metaphor)


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December 07, 2010
Great review! I liked the film myself and I am with you, this was overhyped. Whitaker was amazing in his portrayal that he just commanded the film's pace. Thanks!
More Last King of Scotland reviews
review by . December 24, 2008
Pros: Whitaker's outstanding performance.     Cons: Very few; could have been longer and more engaging.     The Bottom Line: Be prepared, The Last King of Scotland is a hard film to watch, much like Amin’s brutal reign was hard to comprehend and watch unfold on 1970’s era television.      Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie''s plot. When I was a teenager Idi Amin Dada, Uganda's late, not-so-great …
review by . November 17, 2008
A mix of fiction and the truth   that leaves us sad, but wiser   the secrets of Idi Amin   as told by his advisor     A doctor leaves his Scottish home   to help folk in Uganda   he's soon caught up in Amin's world   seduced by propaganda     The dictator with two different sides   one charming, one insane   three hundred thousand people died   during his bloody reign …
review by . January 18, 2008
LAST KING OF SCOTLAND suffers from some of the same problems as HOTEL RWANDA. It is timid in its exploration of the atrocities committed by Idi Amin. While I have no interest in seeing horrible things happen to humans just for the sake of entertainment (I can watch HOSTEL if that's what interests me), I also feel that a true understanding of what Amin inflicted on his country is missing from this film. The way he's presented, he mostly seems like a charismatic but unstable leader, who become increasingly …
review by . May 14, 2007
As much as I enjoyed this film Forest Whitaker's portrayal of Idi Amin is frightening. When you first meet Amin he is fun, approachable and it was easy to find inspiration in his words and personality. Throughout the movie his personality changes from inspiring to paranoid and terrifying. Whitaker's performance flows naturally in and out of these two men trapped in one body. He never misplaces his anger in a sweet scene; his glints of admiration never seep out during a frenzied rant. Whitaker avoids …
review by . April 18, 2007
posted in Movie Hype
THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND delves into the history of Ugandan leadership in the 1970s with gusto. One of the characters (Sarah, the doctor's wife) wisely observes that the crowds that fill the streets cheering as Idi Amin takes control from Milton Obote had the same reaction for the previous dictator and will have the same for the one who follows Amin. It is that aspect of this very fine film that hits home: the people desperately want to be ruled by a hero who will care for them and they maintain …
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Paul Savage ()
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I name and describe everything and classify most things. If 'it' already had a name, the one I just gave it is better.
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Forest Whitaker delivers a ferociously commanding performance as bloodthirsty Ugandan president Idi Amin in Kevin MacDonald's THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND. Adapted from the novel by Giles Foden, the film recounts Amin's horrific reign through the eyes of a fictional character, Nick Garrigan (James McAvoy), a young doctor from Scotland who travels to Uganda hoping to do some good. Nick is more sanguine about new president Amin than is his counterpart Sarah Merrit (Gillian Armstrong), whose experience causes her to be skeptical of Amin's bombastic declarations. After an automobile accident, Nick is called in to treat the president's wounds. His authoritative behavior impresses Amin, who charms Nick into becoming his personal physician. Nick embraces his newfound life of luxury, but he is unable to grasp the reality of the situation. When he does finally realize the atrocities Amin is inflicting upon his people (and is also capable of inflicting on Nick), the terrified doctor tries to make a frantic escape bef...

As the evil Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, Forest Whitaker gives an unforgettable performance in The Last King of Scotland. Powerfully illustrating the terrible truth that absolute power corrupts absolutely, this fictionalized chronicle of Amin's rise and fall is based on the acclaimed novel by Giles Foden, in which Amin's despotic reign of terror is viewed through the eyes of Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a Scottish doctor who arrives in Uganda in...
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Director: Kevin Macdonald
Genre: Drama
Release Date: January 12, 2007
MPAA Rating: R
DVD Release Date: October 13, 2009
Runtime: 123 min
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
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