‘The Last King of Scotland’ might have made a more compelling documentary

by JD Warnock on January 19, 2007

in Print Reviews

Forest Whitaker recently won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of unpredictable Ugandan President Idi Amin in the film “The Last King of Scotland.” Amin was a brutal dictator who reigned from 1971-79, and was responsible for the killing of as many as 500,000 Ugandans during his vicious and erratic rule of Uganda. Amin did, in fact, declare himself to be the King of Scotland after he ousted a number of specific ethnic populations from Uganda, including former colonial power holders the British. “The Last King of Scotland” is based on a book of the same name and is a highly fictionalized account of Amin and those advisors and confidants closest to him.

Fictional protagonist Dr. Nicholas Garrigan is played by James McAvoy (Mr. Tumnus from “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”), who gives a nuanced performance, but is unable to overshadow the alarming problems of character and narrative that haunt this mediocre biopic.

McAvoy is the only impressive aspect of the film and the true lead role in the picture, despite Whitaker’s title character performance. Curiously, the studio is pushing McAvoy as supporting actor and the more recognizable Whitaker as actor. Whitaker has an impressive body of work behind him and this performance is one of the first that could be recognized by the Globes or Oscar (and lets face it, Leo’s just not there yet). Come Oscar-time, it will be interesting to see if Whitaker is still the frontrunner for the top acting award, as his Golden Globe will surely send more Academy voters to screenings of “Last King.”

It is a banner year for “Last King” screenwriter Peter Morgan, who co-wrote this film with Jeremy Brock (”Mrs. Brown”) and also penned the highly regarded “The Queen.” (That movie has helped catapult Helen Mirren to the top of every credible industry awards list.) The screenplay was adapted from the novel “The Last King of Scotland” by Giles Foden, who based the character of Garrigan loosely on a British officer who was taken into confidence by Amin named Bob Astles, often referred to as the “White Rat.”

Without having read the book, its hard to say whether the structure and tone of the film were born in the novel, or if Morgan and Brock were responsible for the ho-hum narrative. Either way the story is limp and the character of Amin might have made a much better documentary study for director Kevin MacDonald (“One Day in September”), whose work to date is predominately documentary film making.

Whitaker’s performance is solid, but Amin was far more than we see onscreen and there is a great deal of information about him that remains in mystery. Rather than adding to the mire of what is known with obvious fictions, discovering the real Amin and his multitude of real life atrocities could have been more dramatic, more frightening and ultimately more respectful to the thousands of real people he murdered.

“The Last King of Scotland” isn’t a horrible film, it has it moments. Its nice to see Gillian Anderson (“The X-Files”) again, and McAvoy is a charming new school Ewan McGregor or Malcolm McDowell type who I’m certain we’ll see a lot more of. Whitaker is deserving of attention I’m just not so sure this role is Oscar-worthy as some obviously do. If your looking for great Whitaker performances stay far, far away from “Battlefield Earth” and run to “Ghost Dog,” Jim Jarmusch’s “Goodfellas”-meets-Samurai-flick.

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