29 June, 2009

The Last King of Scotland (2006)

Monster performance

How can the inhuman be humanized? It's a difficult line to tread - a very successful attempt of recent times came with Oliver Hirschbiegel's marvellous Der Untergang (2004), which chronicled the last, pathetic days of one Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz).

Acclaimed documentary film-maker Kevin MacDonald (Touching the Void (2002)) here turns his attention to the life and times of brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (2006). True, the central, Oscar-winning performance from Forest Whitaker is as good as you've heard and better, but MacDonald's film as a whole is undermined somewhat by its juxtaposition of fact and fiction.

Whereas Der Untergang was rooted very much in the eyewitness account of the real-life last secretary of Der Führer, MacDonald's account opts for the somewhat tired-and-tested perspective of a fictional character caught up in the real-life horrors.

The fictional witness this time is Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a naïve but sharp medical graduate practicing in Uganda to escape another tyrant, his dad. A chance encounter with the recently 'elected' Amin (he's actually come to power via a military coup), in which the young doctor impresses the dictator after he treats Idi's sprained wrist, brings Garrigan into the not-so great dictator's inner circle as personal physician.

Amin's charisma, charming personality and his ambitious plans for Uganda keep Garrigan's conscience at bay for a time, but as the number of kidnappings, murders and atrocities committed by Amin and his men grow by the day, Garrigan attempts to make a difference but, in doing so, puts his own life in grave danger. Time is running out...

Based on the acclaimed novel by Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland is a marvel to behold from an acting perspective, with Whitaker delivering a performance that by and large eclipses all previous big-screen incarnations of megalomaniac villainy. Trust me, you will not be even remotely prepared for what Whitaker does with his turn of a lifetime - so deep does he dig into the paranoid dictator's marrow, and so far does he take the audience with him. McAvoy too puts in a display of remarkable range - from entirely believable would-be playboy to a haunted, haggard wreck of a human being.

On the flip side, unfortunately, the screenplay by Peter Morgan (The Queen (2006)) and Jeremy Brock seems to skim the surface somewhat, with particular reference to a lack of depth concerning the extent that the Ugandan people suffered under Amin. Perhaps the fictionalization is at odds with the historical horror?

But The Last King of Scotland will stand as a testament to a period in history that should never be forgotten. Whitaker's breathtaking portrait is never less than mesmerizing - with a little more focus, the film as a whole could have soared to similar heights.

Awards: Click here for details.

121 mins.

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