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The Last King of Scotland

February 1, 2012
Continuing the Oscar Blogathon series, this time around The Last  King of Scotland, the movie on Idi Amin, that  saw  Forrest Whittaker  taking home the Best Actor Oscar for his  performance as  Idi Amin, actually he just lived the role.
One of my favorite genre of movies is those based on real life events or biopics dealing with lives of famous persons. I guess maybe my interest in politics, and current affairs, makes me biased towards those movies. Actually making a biopic or a movie based on a real life person, is some what a walk on the edge. You have to strike a balance between being factual and being dramatic. Too much emphasis on facts and accuracy, neglecting the drama part, could make it a History Channel documentary, and playing around with facts, and trying to force fit into some kind of drama, could make it end up as a caricature, Pearl Harbor being the best example. Unlike in the West, where movies based on real life events are popular, that genre has not taken root in India. Most of these movies require a good amount of detailing and research, which need money, and effort. Well quite a lot of our movie makers have the money,but then most of them are busy seeking inspiration from DVD’s of foreign movies. Anyway thats another topic of discussion.


There are movies based on real life events, that do strike a balance between factual representation and drama. Now for me the key to a book or movie, is based on to what extent it can involve me in it. The Last King of Scotland is one such movie, which deals with the fictional story of the relationship between a young Scottish doctor and Idi Amin, the notorious dictator of Uganda. The movie starts off with Dr. Nicholas Garrigan( James McAvoy), chosing to work in Uganda, basically to escape his humdrum life at home, where he has to work as a village doctor along with his domineering Dad. Just as Nicholas arrives in Uganda, the incumbent President, Milton Obote is overthrown, by Idi Amin( Forrest Whittaker) in a military coup. He arrives at the clinic of Dr. Alan Meritt, who treats the poor villagers, along with his wife Sarah( Gillian Anderson).

Garrigan happens to see Idi Amin at a rally near the village, and is instantly attracted by Amin’s charisma, and his vision for the nation, though Sarah is sceptical, having seen a lot. A chance encounter where he treats Idi Amin, has the dictator impressed by him, and when he claims he is from Scotland, he is even more impressed, telling him that “if he were not born in Uganda, he would have loved to be born in Scotland”. Idi Amin asks Garrigan to be his personal physician, and for some time, he is impressed by what he sees as Amin’s desire to transform the nation. Amin also makes him his personal advisor, and he lives a life of luxury.
Garrigan however slowly discovers that Amin, is now becomming delusional, paranoid and erratic. He has an affair with Amin’s youngest of wives Kay. And then he begins to learn the horiffying truth about Amin’s regime, the mass murders, the opression. But try as much as he can, he finds that getting out from Uganda, is not easy. He has become a prisoner of Amin, in another sense, and he now faces a desperate moment of crisis.
There are times when an actor’s performance so dominates the movie, that you in fact tend to overlook any faults. In fact so mesmerizing is that performance, that you see it as real. You dont really care about technicalities, you just are hypnotized by it. Al Pacino in Scarface, Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, Antony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs are some examples, honestly when i was watching There Will be Blood, i did not even care to analyze the movie, Daniel Day Lewis, did not allow it. I just said “To hell with everything, just lemme watch Daniel Day Lewis”. 
And Forrest Whittaker’s performance as Idi Amin, belongs to that category. When i first saw Whittaker come on screen, and deliver that speech to a crowd of villagers, my first thought was “God man, this guy is Idi Amin himself”. To call that a brilliant performance would be an understatement, it just goes beyond any superlatives. 
Forrest Whittaker does not perform, he lives that role, you see Idi Amin on screen. Be it his accent, his mannerism, his expressions, this actor takes you straight into the heart of evil.Africa has a history of military dictators, but Idi Amin, was one of the most famous, because he knew how to play the media. Be it his speeches, his antics, in most of the Western media, he was seen as a buffoon, an idiot, an African version of Dr. Strangelove. And that is where Whittaker brings to life. Idi Amin, was not a cold blooded murderer like Hannibal Lecter, who executed his schemes, he was a delusional, paranoid man, who took pleasure in torturing and executing his enemies. And the most frightening part was that he actually believed what he was doing was not evil, it was for a common good. One scene is enough to show the impact of Whittaker’s performance, in his first encounter with the doctor. He is furious with the doctor for shooting a bull, and talks to him menacingly, and when the doctor mentions he is from Scotland, he suddenly changes to a more friendly tone, and in fact even exchanges his uniform for the doctors Scottish jersey. Just watch the way he modulates his tone, and expressions to effect that change, it is a master class in acting. Forrest Whittaker totally deserved the Best Actor, with due respect to other nominees,his manic intensity, his larger than life presence made sure, that the Oscar was his.
The other interesting part is the relation between Dr.Nicholas and Idi Amin. The character of Nicholas is established in the beginning of the movie, itself where he is shown as a playful adventurer. He wants to go to Uganda, just for some excitement, and he gets it on his first night there, when he has sex with a local girl. He tries to flirt with Sarah, but however she backs out due to the love for her husband. His affair with Kay however is what gets him into real trouble. In a way, Nicholas is the typical white guy, who comes to a Third World country to have some fun, and make best use of everything, so that he could boast of his adventures back home. He is least bothered about Amin’s repressive rule, because he is happy in his own world. In fact he becomes Amin’s partner in crime, when he feels that what Amin is doing is right to establish order in the nation. Pretty fair indication of how the West thinks, as we can see in the way US supported Pinochet just because he was not a leftist. 
It is only when he learns the truth that he had been responsible for death of an innocent minister, whom he snitched upon to Amin, that the horrors of his action, dawn on him. By then however it is too late, trapped as he is in a one way street with no escape. Movies like The Last King of Scotland are in a way more teriffying than any horror flick. When you watch a zombie flick, you tell yourself, that its a movie,see it and enjoy it. But when you watch Amon Goth in Schindlers List or Idi Amin in Last King of Scotland, you simply can’t say its a movie, because these people are real life characters, the very fact that they were there makes you even more scared. 
It is to the credit of director Kevin McDonald, that he actually gets you involved in the movie. Even if you have no idea about Idi Amin, or African history, you are still drawn into this potrait of evil. You flinch when you see Garrigan being tortured and you are scared because you know what will be the fate of the doctor and Kay. Also the director, deliberately employs an in your face approach, more over the top, and i guess that is due to the fact that Idi Amin, was a more flamboyant person who loved to play to the gallery. But as i said, all these analysis gets forgotten, whenever i watch Forrest Whittaker on screen, and thats when i feel like saying “Screw the analysis, just watch Forrest Whittaker”.
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2 Comments
  1. I read the book 'The Last King of Scotland' by Giles Foden some ten years ago and I really enjoyed it so when I heard they were making a film based on it I was both nervous and curious.I have long since given up expected movies to bare any reflection on the books from which they are based as I feel that not all the detail and imagination driven tension can be transferred to the big screen.The Last King of Scotland is much the same, Whittaker as Amin was a great choice although I struggled to find him believable when he was portraying Amin at his most psychotic, he is just too nice in his previous roles.Also there was not enough made of the behind the scenes manipulation of the British government, something I know happened, and like many episodes from our past, I am not at all proud of it.As always this was a thoughtful review full of accurate and well constructed commentary.

  2. James, thanks for your comment. Have not read the book yet, so can't really comment on it's adaptation. Generally though I think when adapting books to movies, is generally a case of lost in translation. Novels usually have a lot of details and insight, which can't really be translated on to the big screen, it has it's own limitations there. I believe Garrigan was based on the real life British soldier Bob Astles, and he was the one who was doing most of the manipulations for Idi Amin.

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