|Rating: The Good – 68.5
Duration: 123 mins
Director: Kevin MacDonald
Stars: James McAvoy, Forest Whitaker, Gillian Anderson
African dictatorships have long provided an interesting context for earnest Hollywood storytelling but Kevin MacDonald’s effort is probably one of the more curious and not always for the right reasons. James McAvoy plays a young Scotsman and recently qualified doctor who heads to Uganda on an indulgent whim. Initially volunteering his services to a rural clinic, he accidentally catches the eye of the Scotland obsessed dictator, Idi Amin, who promptly makes him his personal doctor and partial confidant. As he becomes part of the president’s social scene, the glamour of 1970’s Kampala eventually begins to fade as the young doctor begins to see Amin for the paranoid butcher he really is.
For all the praise this movie got on its release, The Last King of Scotland is a preposterous piece of fiction. Not only is McAvoy’s character entirely made up but by making him so central to many of the real life incidents involving Amin, their significance becomes obscured and somewhat less real. The attempt to use McAvoy as a lens through which we see “Amin the man” does work to some extent but, as the doctor’s own fictitious story is the primary focus, the device falters as one continuously wonders where the fiction ends and the truth begins. Against this confusion, the doctor’s character becomes an overt reference point for everything that’s fictitious in the story and so it becomes difficult to really care about him – even while he’s hanging from ropes hooked into his chest. Surely there were plenty of real life people who lived in and around Amin, who could’ve provided an unobfuscating means of examining the man while also telling an interesting and real story. One suspects there were but they probably weren’t white.
A second issue to arise from this storytelling device is that the dictator’s most significant act, the slaughter of 300,000 Ugandans, is really rather glossed over and again presented in a manner that, from the doctor’s perspective (and therefore the audience’s), can be readily dismissed. For any story set against the rise and fall of the Amin’s regime, one wonders what the benefit of this could be.
If one can overlook these substantial flaws, the movie can actually be quite entertaining (and therein lies one explanation for those flaws). There’s a fun momentum to the earlier scenes which is effectively quickened once the horror begins. Furthermore, in addition to MacDonald’s rugged documentary like direction, a cool retro ethnic soundtrack, and some lovely photography, The Last King of Scotland also offers two rock solid performances.
McAvoy is patently comfortable in the lead role and infuses his natural charm with just enough selfishness to make his character work. Of course, Forest Whitaker’s Amin overshadows him whenever his large bulk enters the frame. This is largely down to his magnetism but there’s no denying that this is a role which naturally facilitates big performances. He’s loud, brash, enigmatic, boorishly charming and, with an accent thrown in to boot, this is the type of obvious turn the Academy were always going to salivate over. Whitaker did everything he could with the role (and then some) but there should come a time when we will all realise that such performances quite simply lack the subtlety of the truly great ones. It’s enjoyable and it’s the movie’s base but not the powerhouse turn we’ve been led to believe it is. That said the acting remains this film’s great strength and a word should be saved for an underused Gillian Anderson who again shows her quality as a character actor who is capable of lifting any film with only minor screen time.
Copyright secured by Digiprove © 2014