The Last King of Scotland

Dan Goldwasser Movie Reviews

Okay this is easily one of the best films I’ve seen all year. The Last King of Scotland is a drama about a young Scottish doctor and his experience as the personal physician of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. The film starts out in the early 1970s with Scotsman Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) deciding to go to Uganda to help a doctor and his wife (Gillian Anderson). He arrives just as Idi Amin leads a military coup to overthrow the government and take power. A chance encounter with Amin leads to an offer to become Amin’s personal physician, and soon Garrigan is caught up in a position of power and one of Amin’s closest advisors. Soon, though, he realizes that something is foul, and as Amin’s insanity and ruthlessness is slowly revealed, he tries to escape back to Scotland – only to find that Amin’s grasp on him is more than he realized.

The film is based on a 1998 novel of the same name by Giles Foden, which blends fact and fiction. It’s a really well done movie, with a great pace, and wonderful cinematography. The reds and greens of inner Africa are optimistic and hopeful when Nicholas arrives, but then as things go south, things get more subdued and gray. The movie was filmed in Uganda, which lends a greater sense of authenticity to it. It’s also fascinating to watch Nicholas go on his journey from an idealistic young doctor to a desperate man on the edge.

But blowing all of that away is Forest Whitaker’s performance as Idi Amin. Truly an Oscar-worthy performance, Whitaker’s on-screen presence is so vibrant and energetic that you almost believe – at first – that Idi Amin is a nice guy, with the best interests of the people in mind. By the end of the film, you’re convinced that the guy is a raving lunatic who you have to get as far away from as possible.

The music didn’t stand out much for the first half of the film – a lot of African source songs seemed to permeate the soundscape. But by the time we got towards the climax of the film, I realized that Alex Heffes’ score was effectively creating dramatic tension, and I eagerly look forward to the soundtrack.

It wasn’t until I started writing this blog entry that I realized where I had heard of director Kevin Macdonald before. He’s the Oscar-winning documentarian of One Day in September, a fascinating look at the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre. He also directed another film I highly enjoyed, Touching the Void, a documentary/recreation about two climbers’ survival after an accident during a perilous mountain climb in the Andes mountains. Now, with The Last King of Scotland, Macdonald has forged a cinematic profile of a psychopathic dictator that will easily be remembered (and heralded) come Awards Season. I only have two thumbs, but they are way, way up.