Review written by Nathan Vass
The Last King of Scotland is not about Ugandan dictator General Idi Amin. It's about a relationship that forms between Amin and a young white Scottish doctor, who stumbles into a position as Amin's "closest advisor." This relationship is seen from the young doctor's point of view. That the filmmakers have chosen to take such tantalizing subject matter and relegate it the sidelines is not necessarily the problem. There have been plenty of artistic works in which the interesting person or event is seen through the eyes of another, usually less interesting main character. Examples include Gangs of New York, in which the Leo DiCaprio character exists as a vessel through which we see the world of 19th century New York, and City of God, where the main photographer character isn't what's most interesting, but rather all the colorful characters around him. I call it the "Charles Dickens approach." Usually this template is used when the subject matter is somewhat alien to the viewer, and the presence of the neutral main character allows us an angle through which to observe the subject of interest. The advantages of seeing through the eyes of a ‘normal' character are many- we see the interesting person/event from a specific point of view; we empathize with the main character because of the interesting plight he's in; and, because he's usually not very developed himself, he functions well as a vessel for the audience. He contextualizes the events of the film for the viewer.
For a film concerning an individual as monstrous as Idi Amin, the charismatic dictator who was responsible for the killing 300,000 of his countrymen, the Charles Dickens approach is probably a good one. Asking the audience to identify directly with someone of his nature is borderline ridiculous. Therefore, it's a good idea director Kevin Macdonald and writer Jeremy Brock chose this angle. The problem with The Last King of Scotland is that even though it uses this often successful template, it completely ignores its possibilities. The film focuses on a relationship that is remarkably flat and uninteresting, considering one of the involved characters is a deranged historical figure. Neither individual (Amin and the doctor, who is a fictional construct) grows or changes as a result of the relationship. The young doctor makes only the most rudimentary of discoveries- he realizes Amin is evil, and wants to leave. Great.
What makes this thematic pitfall particularly frustrating is that the movie has so many strong points. It should go without saying that Forest Whitaker's performance is sublime. As usual, he pours himself into the role, which is a meaty one- he masters the overbearing presence of Amin and the violent changes in personality that made the figure so distinctive. One does not think of ‘acting' when watching him- we simply observe the man and his reactions to what happens around him. Whitaker is truly a master of his craft, and I have no doubt we'll be hearing Whitaker's name again come Oscar time. James McAvoy is excellent as well. He has an interesting face (he played Tumnus in Chronicles of Narnia), and exudes a palpable likability. Both roles are made more difficult by the structural complications outlined above, and the two actors succeed admirably.
Mr. MacDonald's direction is very capable. This is only his first narrative feature (he's best known for the documentary Touching the Void), but he captures the colors and sounds of Africa in exciting ways and invests the film with an invigorating energy that keeps the film afloat. His use of filters and staccato editing are exciting to watch. Make no mistake, this is not at all a bad picture. It is very "entertaining," it contains many fascinating situations, and does not sugarcoat the evil that Amin was capable of. But since the characters have only the most threadbare of arcs, the film is an oddly empty experience, despite its many considerable strengths. This emptiness is particularly apparent at the end of the film, as we realize that there will be no climax- the film more or less just ends. If most films ascend towards a climax, this one is simply a straight horizontal line. It's fascinating while it lasts, but it offers only a weak resolution at its end.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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