Eugene Weekly : Movie Review : 2.1.07


A Good Doctor
Getting too close to tyranny

THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND: Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Written by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock. Based on the novel by Giles Foden. Music, Alex Heffes. Starring Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Simon McBurney and Gillian Anderson. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2006. 121 minutes. R.

Many filmgoers don’t take the whims of Oscar voters seriously — a reasonable notion, doubly so in a year that voters barely recognized such a stellar mainstream film as Children of Men. But to some of us, the annual pomp and circumstance that marks the end of the cinematic year is irresistible. So it’s easy to look a little cynically at The Last King of Scotland, a September release that has only now arrived in Eugene, trailing awards and acclaim for its star, Forest Whitaker. The movie itself, though well-received, is not a contender, which begs an obvious question: Why not?

James McAvoy and Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland

Sometimes, as with Judi Dench’s nomination for Mrs. Brown (1997) or Michael Caine’s for The Quiet American (2002), acting-only awards recognition is a sign of a well-made, intimate film overwhelmed, in other categories, by flashier competition. But sometimes this sort of imbalance is the sign of a great performance packed into an ordinary film. Such is the case with The Last King of Scotland, a blend of fact and fiction that centers around Whitaker’s grand, evocative, frightening performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

Though Amin really was fascinated with Scotland, Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) is a fictional character, reportedly based on a former British soldier who did become an adviser to Amin. Garrigan, full of brash naïvete and casual sexuality, traipses off to Uganda to make himself useful in a village hospital. He’s shortly called upon to tend to Amin, who likes the doc’s straightforward nature. Amin hires Garrigan first as his personal physician and later, as he reminds Nicholas repeatedly, as a general adviser to the mercurial leader.

Scotland‘s strength is in its first half, as Garrigan is pleasantly overwhelmed by one thing after another: the newness of Uganda, an attraction to a married woman (Gillian Anderson, in a beautifully written and acted supporting part), the attention of charismatic Amin, a new job, a new home, endless pool parties, a flashy car. Amin, who seems larger than life from his first scene, looms over everything, and Whitaker is especially astonishing in early scenes, establishing the complex allure of Amin as a combination of power, paranoia and peculiar, sometimes puckish charm.

Whitaker’s performance, impressive and multifaceted as it is, cannot carry the film through to its dramatic close, set against the 1975 Entebbe Airport hostage situation. Nor can the film’s beautifully created ’70s look (marred at times by inelegant editing) or the under-appreciated McAvoy, who plays Garrigan both wide-eyed and sly, a man so idealistic he clings to his illusions of safety, his sense of how the world ought to be, almost beyond reason. When he finally does begin to realize what Amin is capable of — what he does offscreen, unseen until late in the film by Garrigan and the audience — Scotland devolves into an uninspired thriller. The only question is how Garrigan will escape — and how many misguided decisions he will make on his way out. There is little to take away from Scotland, which in the end feels somewhat hollow as it neglects to connect the plight of a self-involved foreign doctor to the fates of the Ugandans who suffered and died under Amin’s rule. As an acting showcase, The Last King of Scotland fascinates; as a film, it nearly becomes as myopic as Garrigan.