Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 19 October 2006
Source Fox Searchlight 35mm print
Features: The Times BFI 50th London Film Festival
Reviews: General Idi Amin Dada
When dealing with real-life tragedy, a filmmaker must tread carefully. Too much harsh reality and you risk alienating your audience. But veer too far the other way and you end up with an easy entertainment, a digestible, sentimental puff-piece like Oliver Stone’s recent World Trade Center, slick, manipulative, but ultimately empty. The trick is to provoke a genuine emotional response — sympathy, horror, anger — while still managing to engage the audience, drawing them into the fictional world of the film. The Last King Of Scotland walks this line uncertainly, stumbling along the way, ultimately erring on the side of entertainment at the expense of both veracity and cultural integrity.
The film focuses on the brutal reign of General Idi Amin Dada over the African state of Uganda during the 1970’s. James McAvoy plays Nicholas Garrigan, a medical graduate unable to face life as a family doctor in small town Scotland, who comes to Uganda looking for adventure. His work begins in a remote village mission, but after a chance encounter he is invited to take the position of official physician to the country’s new President, General Amin. Charmed at first by the leader’s gregarious nature and seemingly upright values, Nicholas gradually becomes aware that he is sinking deep into a situation he can’t control, as the entire country starts to fall apart around him.
As entertainment, the film is supremely effective. The script is tight and well constructed, moving mercilessly from giddy optimism to mounting unease, into a third act of almost unbearable tension. The two central characters are each big enough to fill the screen, McAvoy’s natural charm and winning smile employed to great effect. Forest Whitaker has already been Oscar-tipped for his performance here, and it’s easy to see why. His Amin is larger than life, ruled by his moods, able to switch in a heartbeat from ranting despot to charismatic leader, from paranoid child to boisterous father. It is perhaps unfortunate that his lazy eye and natural hangdog expression, used to such great effect in Ghost Dog and Smoke, lend an unjustified sympathy to the character here, rendering him less terrifying than he ought to be. But this is the strongest role this fine actor has been given in years, and it could very well prove transformative: expect bigger, more prestigious parts from now on, along with a potentially lucrative sideline in Batman villainy.
Kevin Macdonald’s direction is sharp and inventive—the film moves at a lick, driven forward by some dynamic camerawork and a propulsive, rhythmic soundtrack. The historical recreation is flawless, the jolting vibrancy of 1970’s Kampala brought to life in gaudy detail. The shifting film stock and lurid colourisation is occasionally overbearing, but all this does make for an engaging, vivid experience. And when in the final act the film’s tone shifts into outright horror, the impact is immeasurably heightened—there is an image here that will haunt the viewer for days to come.
But this single, stark image is perhaps all that will endure. It’s easy to get carried along with The Last King of Scotland, but little remains after the lights go up. The film lacks insight, or any sense of real depth: this is yet another powerful African story told through Western eyes. The justification here is admittedly worthier than in, say, Cry Freedom, where the filmmakers attempted to make points about black struggle while concentrating on the troubles endured by a white sympathiser. It is the colour of Nicholas’ skin that sets him apart, that segregates him within the film, thereby making him an ideal focus. His isolation and paranoia mimic that of Amin himself, giving us a simultaneous insight into both characters. And the filmmakers use their hero’s Britishness to good effect, making a strong point about colonial fallout and cultural tourism, however well-meaning.
But the fact remains that this is a film made by white people for white people, and as such it is, to some extent, an exploitative product. There’s scant effort made to get into the truth of the Ugandan situation, beyond Nicholas’ limited experience. We are told that 300,000 people have been murdered, but we don’t see it, we don’t feel it. Amin is a madman, Nicholas his conflicted, not so innocent victim. Uganda’s people made a bad choice, and now they’re suffering the consequences—we’re told that the people lined the streets for Amin’s equally brutal predecessor, and will do so again for his successor. We’re encouraged to despise the Englishman Nigel Stone for his assertion that all Africans understand is violence, but we’re never given a reason to doubt his words. The ‘decent’ Africans feel almost token, and are without exception sorely underdeveloped as characters: Amin’s beautiful wife Kay, his bookish Health Minister Jonah, and particularly the Doctor who saves Nicholas’s life, and is killed for it. We’re locked into Nicholas’s world, while more likeable, sympathetic characters come and go, like lambs to the inevitable slaughter. Which of course gives Nicholas a double advantage—not only is he white, he survives. We’re granted a ‘happy’ ending, in amongst all this killing. The film threatens to resemble an African version of The Beach, a film on which many of the production team also worked: the plot parallels are self-evident, and although this is by far the better film one does occasionally feel a familiar sense of crude colonial exploitation.
There’s much to recommend in The Last King of Scotland: it’s superbly crafted, well written, brilliantly acted, everything the undemanding eye expects. But it all rings hollow, because there’s a harsh, brutal reality here, one that the filmmakers have chosen to supersede. It’s all too easy to view this story as fiction, with its flashy photography and dynamic action, it’s just-in-the-nick-of-time ending. As a character study the film works, albeit on a rather narrow, ephemeral level. As entertainment, pure narrative cinema, it’s terrific, but the subject matter demands so much more. As history, it’s irreparably flawed by its insistence on an outsider’s perspective, and on catering to lowest-denominator audiences at the expense of reality and impact.