The mismatched-buddies script is a reliable charmer, its strengths on display in films from The Odd Couple to Sideways, but The Last King of Scotland finds a way to put a fresh twist on the genre. Instead of a neatnik and a slob, or a self-loathing wine connoisseur and a fun-loving boob, it gives us a humanitarian doctor and a flesh-eating despot. The movie tells the story of Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), the 1970s Ugandan dictator widely rumored to have eaten a few of his many slain enemies, and Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), an idealistic Scottish doctor who — fresh out of medical school and eager to help the world’s poor —finds himself taken under Amin’s meaty wing as the ruler’s personal physician and closest advisor.
The movie begins at full gallop. During the span of just the opening credits, bright-eyed Nicholas expresses frustration with his overbearing father; makes the decision to pack up his life and move to a new place (impulsively choosing his destination with the help of a spinning globe); meets a fellow doctor’s attractive wife in Uganda; learns that the widely beloved Amin has taken power by coup; and begins having sex with the natives.
It’s an awful lot to learn about someone in two minutes, and it’s indicative of what ends up being the movie’s fatal flaw — it’s not about Amin, it’s about Nicholas.
Whitaker has plenty of screen time, sure, and he’s occasionally breathtaking, particularly when he first appears, taking the stage to address a group of villagers. We first see his broad back as he marches toward the amped-up throng below him, and then there’s a dramatic cut to his maniacal shouting face, eyes off-kilter and ablaze. After a brief speech, he joins the locals in a tribal dance on the platform, and Nicholas, the whitest face in the crowd, can’t take his eyes off the spectacle. Neither could I, and it was easy to imagine that — along with the missionary — I was about to be swept up by Amin’s charisma, only coming out of the trance in time to watch Whitaker’s Oscar-acceptance speech.
And in fact, this great scene is followed closely by another, in which Nicholas is called to the site of a car accident, where he dresses a minor wound suffered by Amin, and the film ingeniously shows how the dictator might see something of his own volatile, cocksure nature in the young Scot. They’re brilliant, subtle moments, and a movie full of them might have been a masterpiece.
Nicholas, as director Kevin Macdonald soon makes clear, is not just any naïf navigating the halls of power. He bears the added burden of being a Symbol. Given that Amin’s Uganda was in its earliest stages of independence after nearly 70 years of colonial rule by Britain, there are inevitably deeper themes in a visit from a well-intentioned white man. By choosing the young doctor as its focal point, the movie implicitly promises the story of his journey from naiveté to complicity to disillusionment to peril. Trust me. It’s all right there in the contract. I’ll wait while you check.
The problem is that he gets stuck in the first stage of that journey, and the audience’s sympathy gets stuck right there with him. When Nicholas meets Nigel Stone (Simon McBurney), a bigoted British emissary, he’s quick to express disdain for such backward thinking. But Nicholas is so anti-colonial, so eager to approach the continent with unbiased righteousness, he ends up nurturing a blindness about what’s going on around him that strains belief. And in a story like this one, there’s a critical difference between understandably green and unfathomably credulous.
After ignoring plenty of omens about the company he’s keeping, Nicholas literally gets blood on his hands in a scene when Amin’s brutality becomes impossible to ignore. But, no. Nicholas is shaken by this, but not awoken. It takes an additional turn of events, one in which he plays a more pivotal role, to open his eyes. Of course, by then it’s too late — for both him and the movie. By this point, the audience’s eyes have been open for what feels like several days.
To work as the historical-political thriller it aspires to be, The Last King of Scotland would require the nearly impossible: viewers unaware of Amin’s atrocities, so that those horrors are revealed to the audience at or near the same moment they’re revealed to Nicholas. As it is, we’re in the position of watching a slasher movie set in a glass house. We don’t have to guess if the killer is standing outside the door — we can see him plainly the whole time.
It’s hard not to pine for a movie that would have been a more appropriate canvas for Whitaker’s talent — some 200-minute epic focused mostly on Amin’s life (his early military career, his terrible reign, his eventual life of quiet exile in Saudi Arabia). The movie’s based broadly on true events, but the narrow story of Nicholas is from a novel of the same name by Giles Foden. The title is taken from a nickname that Amin gave himself, inspired by his inexplicable love of all things Scottish.
It wasn’t the only inexplicable thing about him. His alternating lack of intelligence, Ali-like manipulation of the media, personal charm, and thirst for mayhem made him a fascinating, if completely irredeemable, character. For a while, The Last King of Scotland has a good time watching him toy with his chosen circle of advisors. There are times, when he cracks patently bad jokes in a clumsy effort to be liked by those around him, that you would swear his nearest kindred spirit is not Colonel Kurtz or Hannibal Lecter, but David Brent from “The Office.” Some toadies (the dumb ones) greet these jokes with a blank stare, but most (the self-preservationists) respond with forced laughter, because Amin is powerful and might feed them to crocodiles. (OK, that last part isn’t like Brent, unless I missed another, much stranger Christmas special.)
Whitaker’s performance alone does make the movie worth seeing, and the grainy cinematography used to capture Africa’s jarring mix of natural beauty and political savagery recalls the work of Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener). But as it becomes clear that we’re going to follow Nicholas’ story in an arc that would snugly fit a made-for-TV movie, this grittiness is mostly wasted.
If Nicholas ever became consciously complicit in the regime’s terror, the movie would have achieved a moral complexity that eludes it. Instead, by the time he truly understands his predicament, he’s past the point of choosing, whatever moral agency he might have had swallowed up by Amin’s scary embrace and an ultimatum — stay in Uganda, or else. In the face of Nicholas’ meek protests of his innocence, Amin says, “Do not pretend to yourself that you did not know,” and at this moment the madman has unnecessarily become the movie’s voice of reason.
None of this is McAvoy’s fault. He does an admirable job with what he’s given, especially considering the massive shadow (both literal and figurative) cast by the hulking Whitaker. But for those less empathetic audience members who crave Nicholas’ full comeuppance for stumbling into the heart of darkness, it’s hard to beat Whitaker’s whispered, chilling delivery near the film’s end as he leans toward his bloody charge — who’s been properly tenderized by henchmen and looks back at the tyrant through the one eye not swollen shut: “I think your death will be the first real thing that has happened to you.”
Whether or not Nicholas dies is not for me to tell you. All I can say is that the movie barely survives him.
John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s an editor at Harper Perennial and a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.Take My Word, I'm a Madman Don't You Know
Film | January 17, 2007 | Comments ()