The Last King Of Scotland

on September 27, 2006 by Bridget Byrne
Forest Whitaker's performance as Idi Amin is so good it's scary. Of course the barbaric Ugandan dictator was scary, but this performance picks up on so many layers of intriguing complexity in the man while never overstepping boundaries into any semblance of standard madman portrayal. There's no sign of theatrical tricks, no indulgence in disguise, no holding back from full commitment in achieving this flawless match-up of acting skill and role. It's compelling, seductive, terrifying.

A clever meld of fact and fiction, intelligent, witty and ruthlessly honest to the misguidance and misery at the heart of the story, Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock's script for "The Last King of Scotland," based on a novel by Giles Foden, takes a young Scottish doctor, dashed through with a serious itch to escape the confines of home, and hurtles him into an African political disaster, which undermines his ethics and threatens his life. James McAvoy exposes all the doctor's rawness of mind, heart and spirit as he's gradually seduced into the role of personal confidant to Amin, who's at once large, overripe, fascinating, unpredictable, brazen, fundamentally cruel, filled with childish glee and glossily evil.

Shooting mainly on African locations, director Kevin Macdonald picks up on both eye-catching and hidden truths of time and place with the natural skill of the documentary filmmaker he has been while allowing the characters, whether true or fabricated, equal presence and power. The horror of Amin's self-imposed rule lurks through all the moods and moments of the story but is finally unleashed fully onscreen at exactly the right time to reveal its truly monstrous impact.

Even those with less screen time than Whitaker and McAvoy are given their rightful space and fill it fully. Kelly Washington, as one of Amin's beautiful wives who turns to the doctor for the comfort of love; Gillian Anderson, as a fellow medic's wife with a firm grasp of the limited potential for charity and hope in Amin's Uganda; and Simon McBurney, as a seedy British official with an expedient view of the folly of any and everyman's imperialism, are all strikingly on cue. Their performances, just like the two lead roles, the script and the direction, are invested with understanding of the ongoing mistakes of history, the issues manifested in this weird duet between the African tyrant and Dr. Garrigan.

Starring Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Simon McBurney and Gillian Anderson. Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Written by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock. Produced by Andrea Calderwood, Lisa Bryer and Charles Steel. A Fox Searchlight release. Drama. Rated R for some strong violence and gruesome images, sexual content and language. Running time: 123 min.

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