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Friday, March 2, 2007

'The Last King of Scotland'

He was barmy, led a tartan army

If you're thinking that "The Last King Of Scotland" is some kind of fantasy-sequel to "Braveheart," well, guess again. The "king" of the film's title is 1970s Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada, who was a former barracks boy with the King's Highlanders, and liked to boast that his defiance of Uganda's British colonizers would have the Scots pleading with him to be their king.

The Last King of Scotland Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
The Last King of Scotland
Forest Whitaker has just won an Oscar for his portrayal of Idi Amin, kilt and all, in "The Last King of Scotland." (c)TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Director: Kevin Macdonald
Running time: 125 minutes
Language: English
Opens March 10, 2007
[See Japan Times movie listing]

It didn't quite turn out that way. While Amin came to power lionized as a fiercely nationalist and independent African leader, he left office with the reputation of just another brutal despot; some figures claim as many as 300,000 deaths under Amin's reign of terror, and while the true figures may never be known, there's no doubt he was a monster.

An urban legend in Kampala says that before his rise to power, Amin visited a witch doctor and said he wanted to become Uganda's president. He was told that to do so, he would have to eat the heart of the one he loved most. Perhaps this was meant as a metaphor, but a few weeks later, Amin's eldest son disappeared.

"The Last King Of Scotland" is actually two stories -- one fictional, one not. The first is that of Scotsman Nicholas Garrigan, fresh out of med school and brimming with vague ideas of a new life somewhere faraway. He heads off to Uganda and winds up working as Amin's personal physician. This is the "white man in Africa" story we've seen so many times recently, whether it's "The Constant Gardener," "Shooting Dogs," "Blood Diamond," "Tears of the Sun," or even "Sahara." In fact, it's almost impossible to see Africa in mainstream cinema except as seen through the eyes of a white, Western protagonist. ("Hotel Rwanda" being a bold exception.)

This is more driven by demographics than racism, despite what more PC-critics might think, but the end results often feel shallow, kind of like books on Japan written by someone who spent a year or two teaching English here. After a while one craves something less shallow, giving us a view of African society as seen by Africans, not Westerners -- an African "City of God," if you will.

Which brings us to story No. 2 in "The Last King Of Scotland," that of Idi Amin himself, an entirely African story. As played to perfection by Forrest Whitaker, he's a compelling monster, which is as it should be.

Whitaker captures Amin's charisma, his ebullient charm, while also showing the paranoia and madness that lurked behind it. His unpredictable swings between the two are what make him terrifying.

Story No. 1 in "The Last King," Garrigan's, is actually pretty boring, except for displaying how consistently Western interlopers manage to get Africa wrong. Garrigan comes to Africa on a lark, sleeping with a Ugandan babe before he's even been in the country 24 hours. He works at a missionary hospital for a while, and after getting nowhere with the other doctor's wife, Sarah (Gillian Anderson), turns a chance encounter with the newly installed dictator into a cushy position as Amin's doctor, and soon enough, his "closest adviser." Beset by fears of spies and enemies everywhere, Amin feels he can trust this young man precisely because he has no real interest in Uganda.

Garrigan, pampered by Amin with a Mercedes, a house, and the headrush of power, averts his eyes from what he doesn't want to see -- the disappearances, the murders, the incipient signs of megalomaniacal madness. By the time he does figure out how deeply involved he is in all this, he takes the incredible risk of sleeping with one of Amin's wives. It becomes kind of hard to feel sorry for anyone so foolish.

Amin, by contrast, it the far more intriguing character, even if he is the bad guy. Like so many people at the top, he has this incredible need to be admired and loved that is curdled by the suspicion that everyone's out to get him. Whitaker nails the role so perfectly, with such mad, bug-eyed intensity, that when the filmmakers add some actual period footage of Amin near the end, you have to look closely to confirm it's not the actor.

Whitaker just scored an Oscar for this one, and definitely deserves it, but it's worth noting that the Academy seems a bit too fond of rewarding impersonation, either of famous folk -- Helen Mirren's Queen Elizabeth II, but also Truman Capote, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash etc -- or physical/mental disabilities (too numerous to mention). It's sure easy to measure a performance when you've got the yardstick of a real person to hold up against it, but it feels like a lot of other damn fine acting is getting the shaft because its technique is less obvious.

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