Great Scot

“Uganda, are you ready to rock?!” Forest Whitaker as tyrant Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.
The Last King of Scotland
Dir. Kevin Macdonald; writ. Peter Morgan feat. Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Gillian Anderson, Kerry Washington (R)
Director Kevin Macdonald tackles his first feature, The Last King of Scotland — a fictionalized account of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s climb to power in 1971 and eventual descent into murderous madness (he killed more than 300,000 of his people) — with an authority that borders on flawless until the final 30-or-so minutes of the film. That’s when the transcendent thriller abandons nuanced drama for a conventional, albeit frightening, conclusion. Bright, exotic colors and equally colorful performances by Golden Globe-winner Forest Whitaker as Amin and James McAvoy as Nicholas Garrigan, Amin’s Scottish personal physician turned chief advisor, slowly but steadily deteriorate into muted tones as their morals are compromised by ambition and power-lust.

It all starts when young, naïve Garrigan spins a globe and randomly chooses Uganda as his travel destination. There is beauty in Uganda, he finds, not just in the land and the blue skies, but in the people and especially his co-worker, Sarah (Gillian Anderson). It seems Garrigan has a taste for married women, which comes back to haunt him. Before long, the good doctor ends up at a rally for the new president, Idi Amin, who has just overthrown the previous, pro-communist dictator and has been greeted as a savior by his people. When Amin’s wrist is injured on the trip back to the capital, he is treated by Garrigan. As a Scotsman — a people Amin served with in the British military and holds a great affection for — Garrigan gains the president’s instant trust.

Garrigan is quickly hired as Amin’s personal physician, a role that before long mutates into political advisor. Garrigan has trouble refusing the position since Amin, a deeply charismatic man with a heart-warming sense of humor and family, showers him with gifts, access to beautiful women, and a king’s lifestyle. British intelligence officers warn Garrigan about Amin, and even request that he spy for them, but the doctor never suspects that he’s stumbled into a dangerous situation.

Eventually the truth surfaces; rumors begin to circulate about mass killings perpetrated by Amin’s men. Garrigan finally realizes he has to get out, but can’t — Amin won’t let him. The president even steals his passport and replaces it with a Ugandan one. Life as Garrigan knew it is now over; he’s been complicit in a world of murder and madness, and so he handles it the only way he can — and this is where the film begins to stumble. Garrigan has an affair with one of Amin’s wives, a move so unbelievable it undermines everything that follows.

Macdonald shifts into action-thriller mode at this point as Garrigan struggles to protect the wife from Amin, escape discovery for his own duplicitous actions, and flee the country. Of course, none of that works out for him the way he would have hoped. It’s just too bad that a film so dramatically moving could resort to such trivial and familiar tricks to wrap itself up.


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