Friday, 19 January 2007

The Last King of Scotland - Review by Robert Duffin

Director: Kevin Macdonald
Screenwriter: Jeremy Brock
Running Time: 121 mins
Certificate: 15

It’s no surprise that the Oscar winning filmmaker Kevin Macdonald has finally decided to enter the realm of fictional narrative cinema as his acclaimed documentaries are often structured like Hollywood films. One Day in September (1999) is as powerful a thriller as Spielberg’s Munich (2005) and his Touching the Void (2003) is such an effective morality drama, dressed as a disaster movie, that Tom Cruise was looking to make a fictional version of the climbing catastrophe. Yet despite this flair, his first fiction feature The Last King of Scotland, suffers at the loss of documentary restraint.

The film, based on the book by Giles Foden, centres around the brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (Forrest Whittaker) and his regime as seen through the eyes of his personal physician Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James MacAvoy) during the 1970s.

Whittaker’s Idi Amin is the awards season performance to beat this year. A well loved supporting actor finally fronting a film, playing a real person and going through a physical transformation has been the Oscar requirement in past years, (Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote,) but that’s not to cheapen the achievement. Whittaker, with one eye bulging and the other half closed, captures the essence of Amin and you can understand why the people of Uganda fell for such a tyrant: a commanding force in front of a crowd and a charismatic cuddly bear at wine receptions. It's just unfortunate that Whitaker's superb portrayal is a supporting character in this muddled rites of passage.

Next to his performance the film pales. It takes such a plethora of clichés to get the fictional Nicholas Garrigan to Uganda you wonder why screenwriter Jeremy Brock brought the character over from the book. The plot machinations are felt as the young Doctor, feeling oppressed by a life at his father’s practice, decides to leave his home country to work abroad. You worry he’s going to pull out a globe, spin it and go where his finger lands; and then he does.

If Garrigan had been a more compelling character this might have worked. However, his behaviour is so irrational it's hard to take an interest in his fate. His adolescent obliviousness goes on too long. He decides to stay in Uganda when he witnesses the horrors, and he gets innocent people killed by accident. After learning what kind of a man Amin is, he starts sleeping with one of his wives (Kerry Washington). Once again the burden of the plot bears down and for the last third of the film Garrigan is given an increasingly ridiculous number of constructed narrative hurdles to overcome. MacAvoy does hold his own in his scenes with Whitaker, particularly in the finale, and effectively portrays the naïve Garrigan being sucked in by the charming fiend.
The rapid, often stream-of-consciousness editing, the rough-hewn montage sequences, and Anthony Dod Mantle’s washed-out vintage seventies cinematography perfectly capture the heat-damaged fear and loathing of Garrigan. Yet whether the film says anything original on the nature of evil and innocence in this chaotic mise-en-scene is a vague notion, but The Last King of Scotland proves that Macdonald has the talent to one day bring his propensity for excellent action and atmosphere to a masterpiece.
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