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Review: The Last King of Scotland (2006)

The Last King of Scotland (2006)

Directed by: Kevin Macdonald

Premise: A dramatized portrait of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) as seen through the eyes of his personal physician (James McAvoy).

What Works: The Last King of Scotland is a great example of dramatizing history concisely and appropriately to create a character study of an individual and the times in which he lives. Forrest Whitaker’s performance as Amin is comparable to Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, Bruno Ganz in Downfall or George C. Scott in Patton, in that the actor disappears in the role and truly embodies this character. Whitaker captures Amin’s charisma and madness in a performance that is carefully structured and executed like a master chess player, making each move count and gradually moving toward an endgame that is fascinating to observe. Like Downfall or Patton, The Last King of Scotland takes a legendary figure and finds ways of humanizing the myth but also placing them in a narrative that allows for an understanding of who this person is, why they are important, and what role environment played in forming their character. James McAvoy also gives a great performance as Amin’s fictionalized personal physician. In the shadow of Whitaker’s role, McAvoy is easy to overlook, but he has to pull off some very difficult scenes and the dramatic structure of the film rests on his shoulders, but he pulls it off. McAvoy conveys the naiveté of someone caught up in the promises of a revolution and his gradual realization of the truth is as carefully staged as the revelation of Amin’s madness.  

What Doesn’t: There is a subplot in the opening of the film involving McAvoy’s character and a near affair with a married female doctor (Gillian Anderson). The subplot establishes some character trait’s of McAvoy’s character that pay off later, but as a whole the relationship with Anderson’s character does not return to the story.

DVD extras: Commentary track, deleted scenes, documentary on Idi Amin, featurettes, trailer.

Bottom Line: The Last King of Scotland is an important film featuring a great performance. The film is a lesson in how monstrous people may take power and the charismatic nature of many of these kinds of leaders. It is also a lesson in how and why many parts of Africa are as chaotic as they are today and the film illustrates the fallout of imperialist and colonial rule.

Episode: #145 (June 17, 2007)