In my review of Che: Part One (2008), I postulated that it is impossible to make definitive biopics of key historical figures like Hitler and Stalin, because of the sheer volume of historical and intellectual baggage that they bring with them. The Last King of Scotland seems to follow the rule that the best such biopics focus on a small part of the figure?s life and from that form a microcosm which alludes to the bigger picture. Downfall pulled it off by being the most meticulous reconstruction of Hitler?s last days that we have. The Last King of Scotland achieves the same feat by using a fictional story as the prism through which great evil is reflected.
A quick glance at the crew list assures us that we are in safe hands. It is helmed by Kevin MacDonald, who has proved himself a master of suspense in both Touching the Void and State of Play. The screenplay is co-written by Peter Morgan of Frost/Nixon fame, a man whose work handles complex political subjects with brio and knows how
to rack up the tension to breaking point. And it?s shot by Anthony Dod Mantle, an expert in digital photography who would go on to shoot Slumdog Millionaire.
Against all this technical promise, however, we have the opening forty minutes, which are uninvolving and look very sub-Trainspotting. They?re not terrible as in obnoxious, offensive or stupid, but they feel bland and inconsequential in regard to the rest of the film. The best thrillers, like the Bourne series, rely on the protagonists being both believable and likeable before the bad stuff starts happening to them.
James McAvoy is fine, make no mistake, but Gillian Anderson?s character is just so planky that you struggle to form an emotional bond with her. Like Laura Dern?s character in Blue Velvet, she is supposed to serve as the sanctuary to which the protagonist seeks to return after he wades in too deep. But there?s very little that she does on screen which makes us care about what she does and what she stands for. When we see her getting out of Uganda on a bus and James McAvoy running after her, we feel the pain and torment of his character but think almost nothing of her.
Thank goodness, then, for Forest Whitaker, who in both character and acting is lord over all he surveys. He gives a truly great performance, almost on a par with that of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. What makes it so involving is that the reaction we have to his Idi Amin is exactly that of the McAvoy character: we are initially drawn in by his charisma and deep belly laugh, but as the film rolls on he becomes more paranoid and bloodthirsty, making us fear for our lives. Amin was such a larger-than-life character that it would have been very easy for an actor to slip into pantomime, to play him as a cartoonish, over-the-top witchdoctor. The fact that Whitaker gets it so right, so early on, is proof that the film has the right intentions.
Other reviewers have remarked about the film?s resemblance to Apocalypse Now, both in the nature of its villain and in the shared premise of Heart of Darkness (an outsider going into the darkness of Africa). Whitaker is clearly drawing on Marlon Brando?s Kurtz in his performance, and the initial encounters between Garrigan and Amin could be compared to the scenes between Willard and Kurtz in the temple. To some small extent, this is Apocalypse Now in reverse; instead of strangly warming to evil the closer he gets, Garrigan becomes more desperate to return to ?civilisation?.
The main theme of the film is a surprisingly cynical one, at least for an awards contender. We?ve become used recently to award-winning films like The Interpreter and The Constant Gardener, playing it safe with solidly liberal credentials. So when a thriller comes along which suggests that Western intervention may do more harm than good, it comes as a pleasant surprise.
The film is quite nihilistic insofar as it offer up two opposing theories on post-colonialism and find them both to be inadequate. On the one hand, Western intervention is shown to be futile; Garrigan?s efforts on the ground struggle to compete with local supernatural cures, and the British are clearly implicated in the coup which brings Amin to power. On the other hand, Africa?s ability to produce democracy of its own accord is chastised by the record of Milton Obote, and the speed at which government descends into near-tribal warfare. The first time Amin speaks about a united Uganda, we?re taken in by the rhetoric; the second time, at the party, we?re not so sure.
The filmmakers have clearly done their homework both on the story of Amin and on the culture of Uganda. Numerous scenes start off with characters talking over a great piece of African music, including a great use of Hugh Masakela during the bar scene.
While the story clearly carries so-called ?universal themes?, it isn?t just an ancient morality tale dressed up in 1970s clothing. The Uganda you see on screen looks and feels like 1970s Uganda, from the cars and architecture, right down to the fashions of the ex-pat tailors.
As far as tension goes, the film rises and falls on the strengths of its editing. In the baggy opening, the quick cuts suggest nothing of any substance is happening, and that MacDonald is trying to hurry the story along to get to Amin. By the end of the film, the quick cutting has become a great device, steadily racking up the tension and making you squirm in the process. In both the military base and the airport, the cutting and Whitaker?s close proximity to the camera can scare you half to death. The technique may be borrowed from The Bourne Supremacy, but at least there?s no clunky homage to it amongst all the blood and gunfire.
The Last King of Scotland is not a perfect film by any means. Some of the characters are not properly explored, and there are aspects to the cinematography which don?t quite work. Dod Mantle captures tension well, and you can see hints in this of what he would accomplish on Slumdog Millionaire. But the film is littered with unnecessary zooms which don?t contribute to the tension and often have the opposite effect.
In the end, though, the film rises above most of its flaws via a strong script and even stronger performances. The film is a vivid and compelling portrait of a bloodthirsty dictator, which follows the golden rule mentioned at the start. It only shows us so much of Amin, but the little we see of him is enough to make us fascinated by him. But its greatest triumph is its willingness to challenge the political credentials of our age, a reminder that ?end of history? neo-liberals should not rest on their laurels just yet.