Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Last King of Scotland

U.K. • 2007 • directed by Kevin MacDonald • 123 minutes

It says a lot about Forest Whitaker’s performance in The Last King of Scotland that he won the Oscar for Best Actor and not Best Supporting Actor. As Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, Whitaker creates such a ferocious, magnetic presence onscreen that he makes what is clearly a secondary role seem like the burning heart of the movie. And in a way, that’s a shame, because the movie itself is astonishing.

The director, Kevin Macdonald, has made only documentaries before this, and his keen awareness of the politics of representation where “real” life is concerned help keep The Last King of Scotland from becoming just another ogling look at Africa. His previous film, Touching the Void, was a sense-stunning docudrama about an unbelievable mountaineering disaster in the Andes; here he has again blended fact with cinematic subjectivity and made a mesmerizing film. Even if he sticks strictly to this narrow pseudo-fiction niche, his films will be ones to watch for.

The Last King of Scotland is seen through the eyes of Nicholas Garrigan, a Scotsman who arrives in Uganda fresh out of medical school, channeling Benjamin Braddock and a lot of Candide. He wants to do good and have a little fun while he’s at it, which he quickly does with the wife of a British doctor (an unrecognizable Gillian Anderson). His boyish idolatry then draws him to a speech rally for Amin, who has just seized power. In our first glimpse of the dictator, Macdonald isn’t shy about channeling Garrigan’s youthful enthusiasm into the camerawork. We first see Amin from behind, where he appears larger than life and literally envelopes the people before him.

Soon Garrigan has been taken in by the charming president, who knows a ball of clay when he sees one. Garrigan becomes Amin’s personal physician and has no trouble adapting to the poolside lifestyle in the big city; Amin, meanwhile, thinks that because he’s won Garrigan’s trust, he now owns him. The film, pointedly seen through Western eyes, is about Garrigan’s discovery of just how wrong things are with this man he admires.

Though Amin did at one point have a Scottish physician, Garrigan is a composite of people and observations pieced together for Giles Foden’s novel, on which the movie is based. As such, he is rather obviously a commentary on the European naiveté that has for so many years led to monsters like Amin being able to do as they please in Africa. What makes the movie outstanding, even masterful, is how it plays our sympathy back and forth between these two people who are both, essentially, despicable. Amin is a monster, but Garrigan is a brash fool, and even though we root for him through the nail-biting climax, the movie is about his disillusionment.

What makes Macdonald’s direction truly impressive is that not only does the movie navigate the reckoning of its protagonist and the descent of Whitaker’s main character, but it is also unabashedly thrilling as a movie. Alex Heffes’ score, much like the movie, is quietly unsettling at first and then builds to a frenzied fanfare for the all-stops-out climax. Amin’s violence is at first restrained or invisible, but his final act is so brutal and horrifying that it recasts the glow in his eye as nothing less than deranged. And the entire final sequence is nearly Hitchcockian in suspense, but Macdonald never loses sight of his theme even as he builds toward an Aronofsky-esque delirium.

In the awful chaos of the film’s end, Amin stares a broken-down Garrigan in the eye and says, “You came to Africa to play the white man. But we aren't a game. We're real. And when you die, it will be the first real thing you have done.” Who would have thought that the first movie about “real” Africa in a long time would be a fictitious adaptation of actual events? Or that, like Amin, it would show us the death of our childish Western point of view by taking us into a brutally real account of that proverbial heart of darkness?
originally published in the Whitman College Pioneer.

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