The hype surrounding Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is not without justification. He delivers not only the performance of the year but of recent memory. Though Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) our protagonist, holds is own, as in, he’s not acted completely off the screen by Whitaker. These two performances are so good in fact, that they draw attention away from a script filled with holes.
Nicholas Garrigan is fresh out of medical school; he’s young, arrogant, idealistic invincible and horny. “The first place you land, you go,” he says as he spins the globe and blindly stops it with his index finger. He lands on Canada and spins again. Guess where he lands. How was this scene not canned in the first rewrite? Screenwriters Peter Morgan (The Queen) and Jeremy Brock (Mrs. Brown), both fine writers, ought to know better.
Cut to: Dr. Garrigan is on a bus traveling through Uganda, the same day Idi Amin will become its’ new president. He’s met by Sarah (Gillian Anderson, or Dana Scully), the wife of Dr. Merrit, who’ll be Garrigan’s partner for about five minutes.
Through a series of Haggisian coincidences Garrigan comes to the aid of Amin. Impressed by how Dr. Garrigan conducts himself under pressure, Amin invites him to be his personal physician. He, like the script, leaves Sara and Dr. Merrit behind. They served their purpose in the terms of Garrigan’s character. Though we do see Sara later in a ridiculously self-conscious and unnecessary scene in which Garrigan sees her fleeing on a bus.
Amin’s paranoia and Garrigan’s arrogance, though sometimes bordering on unbelievable, drive The Last King to a disturbing and ultimately effective climax.
Directed by veteran documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September, Touching the Void), The Last King often has the feel of a documentary, which has proven repeatedly to intensify scenes of violence and/or heightened emotions. Shot on 16mm film, it has a grainy look and most, if not all scenes are handheld. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (known for his work with Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier) brilliantly exploits the richness of color Uganda offers. There’s a very brief scene in which Garrigan goes swimming in the rain. Garrigan’s body appears yellow against a harsh green pool, mimicking the flag of the African National Congress.
In addition, we’re given much more challenging and disturbing images that won’t be soon forgotten.
As Robert McKee says in his famed “Story” seminars, logic is retroactive. The story and all the performances in The Last King are rock solid, making the logical inconsistencies forgivable. But if you’re sensitive to such things, Whitaker’s performance alone is worth the price of admission.