The Last King Of Scotland

The Last King Of Scotland

****

Reviewed by: Steve Harwood

The title of Kevin Macdonald’s latest film refers not to James McAvoy’s young Scottish doctor, but rather to Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator who declared himself to be, amongst other things, the ‘King of Scotland’. Based on Giles Foden’s novel, the film shows how someone like Amin could rise to power and stay there for so long - depicting him as a charismatic, persuasive, yet dangerously unpredictable leader. We see all of this through the eyes of fictional young doctor Nicholas Garrigan, who travels to Uganda to find adventure, but instead gets far more than he bargained for when he becomes caught up in a situation spiralling out of control.

After completing his medical degree, Garrigan seems destined to follow his father into the field of family medicine, but he has other ambitions; leaving Scotland almost immediately for Uganda. Despite knowing next to nothing about the country, he goes to work in a medical relief centre, inoculating local children and treating patients at a makeshift hospital. A chance encounter with the newly installed President leads to him being offered the position of Amin’s personal physician, an opportunity he initially declines. However, Amin is a persuasive man, and after inviting him to a lavish party and convincing him of the importance he would play in the new regime, Garrigan accepts.

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But, as Garrigan becomes more and more embroiled in the President’s interests (he is frequently introduced by Amin as “my closest advisor”), he begins to see through the clever façade. Members of the political opposition start to go missing, there are several assassination attempts and a shadowy British diplomat tries to warn him of what may be to come.

It is easy, with hindsight, to deride Garrigan for being manipulated in such a way, but that would be ignoring just how adept Amin was at charming people to achieve what he wanted. Forest Whitaker gives a mesmeric performance - for the most part portraying Amin as a charming man-of-the-people, but you always sense he is on a knife-edge, ready to snap at any moment. His growing paranoia also points to this, and when the mask does eventually slip, he is simply terrifying.

McAvoy also gives a good performance as a character that is not exactly likeable; Garrigan is naïve, self-centred and, at times, incredibly stupid. Indeed, there are certain plot twists in the second half of the film that do require you to suspend your disbelief. You also have to ask how much he simply doesn’t realise is happening and how much he chooses not to see.

Refreshingly, there are moments of comedy in the film. In particular, Amin’s love for all things Scottish sees him attend a ceremony wearing a kilt, as his soldiers (similarly dressed) sing Loch Lomond to his guests. Such scenes jar dramatically with later events, making them all the more horrific when they arrive.

During the eight years he was President, it is estimated that Amin was responsible for the deaths of some 300,000 Ugandans. It is a brave film that portrays him not simply as a monster, but as a complex individual, who at times is very likeable but just as often is scary as hell. Whitaker’s towering performance is one of the best you’ll see this year.

Reviewed on: 23 Oct 2006
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Ugandan dictator's rise to power as seen through the eyes of a young doctor.
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Read more The Last King Of Scotland reviews:

Nick Da Costa ****
Darren Amner ****
Stephen Carty ***1/2
Chris ***

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Writer: Jeremy Brock, based on the novel by Giles Foden

Starring: Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Gillian Anderson, Simon McBurney, David Oyelowo, Abby Mikiibi Nkaaga, Adam Kotz

Year: 2006

Runtime: 121 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

Festivals:

Leeds 2006
London 2006

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