Shocking brutality rules the day in ‘Scotland’
“The Last King of Scotland” is not a true story, nor is it primarily the story of Ugandan president Idi Amin, the man responsible for the deaths of 300,000 of his countrymen during an eight-year reign that ended in 1979. It is the story of Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a young Scottish doctor who falls into Amin’s good graces and stays there long enough to regret it. Based on Giles Foden’s 1998 novel, “The Last King of Scotland” is a tense thriller, but it is also a chilling study of two men whose appetites lead to their downfall.
Amin (Forest Whitaker), who playfully referred to himself by many grandiose nicknames — among them, “Lord of All Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea” and, yes, “King of Scotland” — is shown here as a charming killer, capable of winning over (for a time) the international press corps with his wide smile and bellowing laugh, but just as capable of slaughtering anyone perceived as a threat. He seduces people like Garrigan with vague pledges to build an independent Uganda filled with roads, schools and hospitals. Others applaudhim for who he is not: Milton Obote, his predecessor, who used the presidency to line his own pockets.
For all his assumed geniality, though, Amin is wildly unpredictable, living in fear of enemies both real and imagined. His violent tantrums make him seem mad, and indeed, there is evidence that Amin may have actually suffered from some mental illness. But the man, portrayed so masterfully by Whitaker, is more shrewd than crazy. He hides the monster within, constantly sizing up those around him and preying on their weaknesses. Once they’re in his vise-like grasp, he squeezes them until they bleed, and Garrigan is no exception.
The young doctor is an easy mark. Just out of medical school, Garrigan is restless and eager to travel — anywhere, it seems, so long as it’s far from home. Randomly, he chooses Uganda, where he has vague aspirations to help the poor villagers but not the requisite work ethic.
Garrigan is an adventure-seeker, and though the idea of being of globe-traveling altruist has some romantic appeal, he doesn’t really want to get his hands dirty. A friend, Sarah (Gillian Anderson), senses this; Amin exploits it. After a chance meeting with the president, Garrigan is invited to become his personal physician. Garrigan takes the job, and before long his hands are soaked with blood.
“The Last King of Scotland” is a political horror story, particularly relevant today, about the dangers of naiveté and unwitting complicity. Garrigan, a fictitious character based on several of Amin’s confidantes, foolishly buys into the empty rhetoric of a homicidal bully, never questioning his brutal reality. In the end, Garrigan is more a dupe than a malicious accessory; he embraces ignorance, unwilling to sacrifice his privileged lifestyle for the sake of doing what’s right.
Whitaker’s performance as Amin is almost certainly the most powerful of his career. He strikes the perfect balance of calculated cool and wild-eyed fervor, giving Amin a presence that is simultaneously riveting and terrifying. His charisma is exceeded only by his sociopathic rage, a reminder that even the most dangerous killers sometimes greet you with a smile.
The Last King of Scotland ???½
Starring Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Simon McBurney and Gillian Anderson
Written by Jeremy Brock, Peter Morgan, Joe Penhall and Giles Foden
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Running time 2 hours, 1 minute