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The Last King of Scotland breaks the pattern of mainstream movies on African politics. It's a successful drama about Idi Amin Dada's rule in Uganda that takes the viewpoint of a white protagonist, yet doesn't betray its subject matter. Both Cry Freedom and A World Apart are really about white characters involved in Apartheid. Only with 2004's Hotel Rwanda did we finally get a major drama about modern Africa that focuses on a black character. 1
The white outsider presumably needed for "mainstream" viewer interest is newly graduated Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a young Scot who volunteers for mission medical work in Uganda, just as General Idi Amin Dada (Forest Whitaker, in an Oscar winning performance) comes to power. The youthful, spirited Garrigan has all but slept with the wife (Gillian Anderson of The X-Files) of the other doctor in the mission when he meets the new President. Amin is enraptured with all things Scottish and likes Nick's attitude, and Garrigan agrees to be his personal physician soon thereafter. The position gets Garrigan his own house and a Mercedes convertible, and Amin soon considers him his closest advisor. The high life is great, but Nick has difficulty ignoring the political end of things --- the British consider the new president a dangerous man, and after some incidents with opposition rebels, Amin's new security chief Masanga (Abby Mukiibi) begins a campaign of slaughter. Told that he will not be allowed to leave, Garrigan begins an affair with Kay Amin (Kerry Washington), the dictator's second, out-of-favor wife ... and things start to go crazy. With his passport seized and Amin behaving more paranoid every day, Garrigan wonders if he'll get out alive.
The Last King of Scotland is such an amazing story that we aren't surprised to discover that Dr. Garrigan is a completely fictional invention. But he serves as an excellent narrative window into the madness of the dictator Amin, a bigger-than-life madman whose regime turned Uganda into a killing ground. All the incidentals are true, including the horrible fate meted out to one of Amin's wives; Garrigan's involvement is the only fictional element. Amin is a hearty, excitable but secretive military man capable of lightning mood swings. One moment he considers Garrigan is a nobody, who can be eliminated at will -- and the next Amin is embracing him as his closest friend.
Whitaker's performance is indeed Oscar-worthy. He never looked this big before, literally towering over the other actors and intimidating us right through the screen. Whitaker uses his bad eyelid to give Amin a contradictory gaze -- one eye seems animated and the other deadly cold. Amin's rather terrifyingly outrageous statements seem all too real -- that he 'conquered' England in Uganda and is willing to send that problem country financial aid.
As the inexperienced young doctor, James McAvoy communicates well the feelings of a young man swept away by pride and a sense of adventure. He's far too eager to sleep with the women he meets and foolishly takes Amin's candor at face value. The money and perks are impressive too; at one point Amin throws an all-night pool party-orgy so that Garrigan can "have some fun". By that time the incautious MD is up to his neck in trouble.
Garrigan has survived a couple of ambushes and seen how Amin's cohorts deal with captured rebels. When he foolishly raises doubts about another minister, Amin has the man tortured and killed for no real reason. The paranoid Amin suddenly decides to expel all Asians from Uganda, targeting the Indian nationals that comprise most of the merchant class. When the atrocities become personal, Garrigan decides to try to kill Amin -- something earlier asked of him by a British operative -- only to see his attempt backfire. This happens at the Entebbe airport during the Israeli hostage crisis. With the frightened passengers waiting just a few steps away in the airport terminal, Amin's butchers begin to torture Garrigan in the duty-free store. Amin watches, like an arch-villain out of a racist colonial fantasy: "Your death may be the first real thing in your life, Nicholas."
Director Kevin Macdonald (State of Play) acquits himself very well on his first feature outing, slowly shifting the film's tone from an adventurous lark to murderous sobriety. Macdonald uses bright imagery of the Ugandan countryside and its people to bolster the doctor's self-confidence. Gillian Anderson is an impressive country doctor's wife who almost succumbs to Nick's temptation, while a host of good actors portray the intimidated ministers and brutal military men around the President. Amin was a lover of everything Scottish, and we see him dressed up in a kilt outfit in one scene. Garrigan thinks this is amusing until Amin's eccentricity shows itself as undiluted madness. Because the white Garrigan character serves as an excellent instrument to dramatize the madness of Idi Amin Dada, The Last King of Scotland is a superior historical thriller.
20th Fox's Blu-ray of The Last King of Scotland gives Kevin Macdonald's suspsenseful show a superb presentation. Shot on both Super 35 and Super 16 film formats, the film is purposely grainy and limited in contrast, and looks quite good. The rich soundtrack makes use of an eclectic blend of African music and western radio hits. Amin apparently likes contemporary pop music because the African music groups often perform their own versions.
A selection of seven deleted scenes includes an unused prologue showing a young Amin as a soldier in the colonial British Army, winning a boxing match. Forest Whitaker talks about his impersonation of Amin in one featurette, while another longer show offers a well-researched history of the real dictator's life and times. A Fox Movie channel piece focuses on the film's casting process; a trailer finishes out the package.
The only real drawback to the disc is Fox's basic encoding, which seems to take three times as long to load as discs from other companies. The "loading" graphic returns repeatedly. So far, the most consumer-friendly discs I've seen come from Warners -- their Blu-rays load up extremely quickly, with a minimum of extraneous menus and disclaimers.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Last King of Scotland Blu-ray rates:
1. There are probably other narrative films aimed at American audiences that observe African politics without major white characters -- any I've forgotten?
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2010 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.