Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Last King of Scotland - Movie Review

The Last King of Scotland 2006

“In any country there must be people who have to die. They are the sacrifices any nation has to make to achieve law and order. “
- His Excellency President for Life Field Marshal Al Hadji Dr. Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, King of Scotland, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular

Sometimes, very rarely, we are woken from our celluloid induced somnambulism by the presence of a well made piece of cinema that reinvigorates our belief in this fine medium. Over the past few months we have been dying slowly, little by little by continuous streams of wearisome and amateurish independent dramas concerning druggies, bloated and mind numbingly simple summer fare that threatened to drain what precious little was left of our souls and thudding bores from one time spent champions.

Thankfully, the fall is with us and the studios are rushing to book their award worthy hopefuls into the stacked movie houses across the land.

Kevin Macdonald’s adaptation of Giles Foden fine fictionalized version of Idi Amin’s brutal reign of terror as the onetime leader of Uganda, lands in the theatre just in time to entertain movie goers with a fine adult drama that pulls no punches, features two fantastic performances and will leave you feeling more than satisfied you ventured out of your dwellings to enjoy “The Last King of Scotland”.

As the infamous dictator general, Forest Whitaker enters the screen with a countenance of a deranged rhinoceros out to smother all who would dare question his rule. He parades, boils, harangues and bullies his way across his cabinet ministers, wives, children and hirelings. From the wonderful first shot of him ascending the platform of a stage to beguile his people with fanciful tales he is mesmerizing to watch. While his career has certainly demonstrated his range and versatility as an actor, not since Clint Eastwood’s “Bird has he been allowed to eschew such a powerful leading role with such flare and success. His name has risen rapidly in the ranks of Oscar talk this year, and every morsel of it is justly deserved.

As the second lead, one Nicholas Garrigan, a young Scottish doctor out to visit Uganda at its most critical time in history, James McAvoy matches Forest Whitaker pound for pound. Which is saying something. We are thrilled to pieces that the brilliant spark of talent he so ably demonstrated in last year’s hatefully banal extravaganza “The Chronicles of Narnia . . .” were not to remain lost to the celluloid ether. Here is a young actor on the rise whose timing, skill and theatrical know how belie his tender years.

And in the lesser but crucial role of a fellow volunteer, Sarah Merrit who attempts to warn Nicholas of the complex machinations at play in the mad mind of General Amin, Gillian Anderson is perfectly cast as an all too savvy witness to the madness. It is a pity that American directors fail to utilize her vast talent, for she continues to mature into a complex and lovely actress.

When we first noticed director Kevin Macdonald’s name it was for his brilliant Oscar winning documentary “One Day in September” detailing the deadly 1972 Munich Olympic Games. He followed that sterling piece of work with the fantastically gripping docudrama “Touching the Void” which depicted the jaw dropping tale of two mountaineers and their life and death struggle in the Peruvian Andes. Here was a talent to watch.

Now, with his foray into fictional storytelling his talents are used to beautiful effect. His use of the camera, cinematography, editing and carefully chosen cast is commendable. His ability to paint a harrowing tale of lost innocence, temptation, political intrigue amidst the skeleton of the turgid life of Idi Amin is nothing short of entrancing.

What makes this film a truly solid piece of work is the economy Macdonald employs in telling his complex tale. We understand immediately the character of Nicholas Garrigan. An idealistic young man whose inability to look further than the surface of his own desires is visualized in the childish act of deciding his future by spinning a globe while closing his eyes. When his finger lands on Uganda (after an abandoned first choice, natch) he is off and running.

Once there, his heart is in the right place attempting to help the needy, but his head cannot fathom the shifting landscape around him. When he encounters the powerhouse Amin preaching to the hysterical throng, he is swept away with the enthusiasm that can only be called pure by the very young or the very stupid. He is unfortunately a combination of both at this point in his travels.

After a dramatic and traumatic experience aiding the wounded Amin after a roadside accident, Amin takes note of the young doctor’s quick thinking and ballsy attitude. When Amin calls upon him to become his personal doctor, he undertakes the risky move in the vain hopes of being part of a brave new Uganda. Being that Amin was indeed a madman only brings pain and suffering on a scale that Nicholas could never have hoped to comprehend at the beginning of his journey.

Amin’s Caligula like appetite for pleasures was outmatched only by his monstrous ability to treat human beings as cattle – literally. His ministers fear and loathe him, yet do his every bidding. His wives and children live in constant fear of being outcast and yet maintain their undying devotion to him until the devotion requires them to die for it.

One of the great moments in this wonderful film is when Nicholas is desperately trying to escape his newfound prison, only to catch a fleeting glimpse of his onetime mentor, the lovely Sarah Merrit as she is fleeing aboard a crowded bus of refugees. The look of terror, the outreach of sympathy and the lightning fast exchange of wordless farewells speaks volumes. It is a great cinematic moment made glorious by a director who trusts the power of images and the strength of a well crafted screenplay.

The nail biting finale set against the famed hostage crisis at the Entebbe Airport far surpasses any run of the mill action flick starring Harrison Ford. Macdonald knows enough to show us glimpses of horrific violence without indulging in Tarantino-like pyrotechnics meant to induce vomiting. By the time we are experiencing the nightmarish horror alongside Nicholas, we are completely enraptured with the storytelling.

It is to the credit of director Macdonald and the towering performances by Forest Whitaker and James McAvoy that we care so very much for the final outcome. For while we understand that Amin’s time has come to an end, we are held spellbound awaiting the fate of the once innocent young doctor and the ravaged nation he has so carelessly stumbled upon. A truly wonderful and powerful film, and one we hope you will venture out to experience for yourselves. Bless you all!

Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Written by Jeremy Brock & Peter Morgan
Based on the novel by Giles Foden

Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin
James McAvoy as Nicholas Garrigan
Gillian Anderson as Sarah Merrit
Kerry Washington as Kay Amin
Simon McBurney as Nigel Stone
David Oyelowo as Dr. Junju

Cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle
Film Editing Justine Wright
Original Music by Alex Heffes
Production Design by Michael Carlin
Art Direction by Joshua Barraud
Set Decoration by Tina Jones
Costume Design by Michael O’Connor


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