Film-Forward Review: [THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND]

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James McAvoy as Nicholas &
Kerry Washington as Kay Amin
Photo: Neil Davidson

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THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND
Directed by: Kevin Macdonald.
Produced by: Andrea Calderwood, Lisa Bryer & Charles Steel.
Written by: Peter Morgan & Jeremy Brock, based on the novel by Giles Foden.
Director of Photography: Anthony Dod Mantle.
Edited by: Justine Wright.
Music by: Alex Heffes.
Released by: Fox Searchlight.
Country of Origin: UK. 121 min. Rated: R.
With: Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Simon McBurney, Gillian Anderson & Adam Kotz.

Anxious to be anywhere but working with his physician father in Scotland, recent med school graduate Nicholas Garrigan spins the globe, closes his eyes, and lands his finger tip on the central African nation of Uganda (actually Canada wins in the first go round, but wasnít exotic enough). During Nicholas' sex holiday-cum-goodwill mission, Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), after a coup, has just come to power. In a chance encounter, the young Scot's brash behavior will impress the newly installed leader.

Ignoring the warnings of a fellow Brit and the sudden demotion of Aminís previous doctor, Nicholas accepts the appointment to be Aminís personal physician. Itís hard not to be flattered when the leader of the country literally gives you the shirt off his back. Aminís mercurial petulance can also be overlooked if youíre given your own apartment in the presidential compound. The BMW is another bonus.

Whitaker, as the dictator, is the life of the party. Laughter and a firm pat on the back can solve any of his problems, political, moral, or otherwise. When Amin proudly proclaims Uganda is where the Greeks stole their philosophy and the Arabs their medicine, you want to believe him. But Scotland is the key to his friendship with Nicholas. Both men bristle at English condescension. At their first meeting, Amin confides to Nicholas that if he could be anyone else it would be a Scotsman; heís telling the truth Ė he named two of his sons Campbell and Mackenzie. Looking like the choir boy younger brother of Ewan McGregor, James McAvoy is confident without ever forgetting that his Nicholas wants to be liked. You wait for the chip to be knocked off his shoulder, but you donít beg for it; he not only acts like a teenager, he still looks like he's 16.

The opening credit states this film is inspired by real events and people. Actually, itís based on a novel, with Nicholas a composite of several real-life people. Filming on location does give this thriller-with-a-conscious specificity, and the highly saturated cinematography looks like rediscovered news footage from 30 years ago. The sun-drenched scenery is a departure from cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantleís oppressively dark Manderlay and the gothic Brothers of the Head. But the compression of time is a stiff reminder that we are watching, after all, a movie. Nicholasís rise and horrific fall from the presidential gilded cage is so swift that it feels more like six months, and not six years, since his arrival in 1970 and the climax, the 1976 hostage crisis at Ugandaís Entebbe Airport.

In two riveting documentaries, the precise re-creation of timelines has been one of director Andrew Macdonaldís strengths. In both One Day in September and Touching the Void, every minute counts: the seizing of Israeli athletes during the í72 Olympics by Palestinian terrorists in the first film; a solitary and wounded mountain climber falling into a crevice in the latter. But in Macdonaldís first feature film, time has been cut off. Appropriately, Nicholas is removed in his state-supported cocoon, initially oblivious to the massacres committed by Aminís government. (Figures range widely, but the film states over 300,000 Ugandans were killed during his reign.)

However, Nicholasís plight and the fate of the Israeli hostages held by terrorists in the airport overlap and are combined in a way that, no matter how authentic the filmís look, feels contrived. Itís doubtful that Aminís thugs would use an airport gift shop as an interrogation cell, committing a gruesome act within range of the hostages and in front of the international community. Nicholas upstages the terrorist incident. (The daring rescue of the hostages by Israelís elite special forces waits for Macdonaldís retelling.) Likewise, a subplot involving Nicholas and Kay (Kerry Washington), the third of Aminís wives, is so underwritten, despite the luminous presence of Washington, that it never feels more than the plot device that it is. Overall, one starts to question the whole setup, wondering what is fact and what is fiction, deflating the filmís power. Kent Turner
September 27, 2006

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