Forest Whitaker excels, but The Last King of Scotland falls a little short
So much of the ballyhoo on The Last King of Scotland has focused on Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Idi Amin (which won him an Oscar Sunday night) that it may come as a surprise to find that the film is much more than a one-man show. It’s also something less than a complete triumph, and that may complicate matters further.
Whitaker’s powerful performance as the erstwhile Ugandan dictator—a weirdly charismatic tyrant who oversaw the mass murder of his own countrymen in the 1970s—is the film’s unmistakable centerpiece, but a good deal of the story is about another character, a young Scotsman named Nicholas Garrigan. Fresh out of medical school, Garrigan served for a time as Amin’s personal physician, a position that made him, at the dictator’s somewhat crazed whim, a de facto adviser as well.
The screenplay by Peter Morgan (The Queen) and Jeremy Brock casts young Dr. Garrigan (a raffish James McAvoy) as a frisky sort of rascal, still youthfully scattered and horny for whatever adventure, sexual and otherwise, might come his way. Resourceful but also reckless and naive, he blunders into a position of favor with Amin just after the latter has pulled off a coup d'état, and the young man finds himself bowled over by Amin’s swaggering gestures of generosity. Garrigan is in way over his head, but that doesn’t become fully apparent, to him or to us, until later in the story.
The film’s Amin is a contradictory megalomaniac of increasingly monstrous proportions, and Garrigan’s slide from disingenuous enthusiasm to increasingly guilty deviousness (and finally to outright terror) seems intended as a measure of the dictator’s several-sided and ultimately delusional public persona. Whitaker’s performance lends bold impact to each of those facets, but neither the performance nor the film as a whole develops any real depth of insight for this character.
Instead, we get a spectacle of increasing horror, much of it magnified in almost formulaic fashion through Garrigan’s transformation from accidental hero to abjectly guilty victim. Garrigan is in a way even more central to the action than Amin; the tyrant looms largest of all, but the main story is, finally, Garrigan’s.
The most resonant aspect of the film, politically and historically, has to do with its portrayal of Anglo complicity—Garrigan’s as well as the British government’s—in Amin’s reign of terror, and much else. These dubious maneuverings in global politics are manifested in particular via the ministrations of a seedy-looking Foreign Service operative named Nigel Stone (Simon McBurney, in the film’s most pungent supporting performance).
It may be a sign of the film’s somewhat muddled priorities that two other supporting players of note—Gillian Anderson and Kerry Washington—are more or less relegated to plot-device status. Anderson plays a married colleague whom Garrigan tries unsuccessfully to seduce, and Washington plays one of Amin’s wives, one with whom Garrigan is disastrously successful. Neither lady gets to do much more than maintain a modicum of dignity under duress.