Last King shakedown

A naive but charming Scottish doctor (James McAvoy) arrives to begin his career in early ’70s Uganda. He is at first intrigued and excited at becoming a favorite and then, down the road, the”white monkey” of General Idi Amin (Forrest Whitaker), but the doctor gradually comes to regret being close to the psychotic dictator, and then finally he has to run for his life.

That’s an interesting but less-than-fascinating story, and the bottom line with Kevin McDonald‘s The Last King of Scotland, which has a solid 86% positive Rotten Tomatoes rating, is that it’s only a pretty good because of this. It’s above average, but doesn’t quite have that snap-crackle-pop. But it has, of course, an Oscar-level lead performance from Whitaker, and it’s well made — colorful, atmospheric, well-observed — and so it’s far from a burn.

  • No one anywhere would consider this film a burn, so there’s certainly no need to qualify it as being “far from a burn.” You’re alone on this one, friend. “The Last King of Scotland” is one of the most thematically resilient films of the year, and one that works as well on the surface as it does below. Let alone two brilliant central performances, a shattering screen adaptation and a hell of a job blending it all together by Kevin Macdonald.

  • jeffmcm

    My question is why couldn’t they just make a movie about Idi Amin without the intrusion of ‘white audience-identification guy’ added in?

  • jeff: That is probably the most uneducated assessment I’ve read on this film to date, I have to say. But if that’s what you took from the character, that’s what you took. I’d suggest reading the novel as well. The story is about a lot more than just Idi Amin, and that makes it rise above typicality if you ask me.

  • Jeremy Smith

    You don’t identify with the white guy in this one because he’s a complete and utter fool, which I suppose might’ve worked brilliantly in the novel (there’ve been comparisons to Joseph Conrad bandied about). Unfortunately, the immensely unimaginative screenwriters of this horrendously overrated movie decided to position McAvoy’s character as the audience surrogate, and this leaves you almost sympathizing with Amin.
    Though the film is nothing more than one stock scene after another, it does make a few interesting moves in the final fifteen minutes before surrendering to a pat ending. Stick with Barbet Schroeder’s GENERAL IDI AMIN DADA.
    THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND: well directed, well performed, written by clods. I hope Peter Morgan’s work on THE QUEEN isn’t this thuddingly awful.

  • Devin Faraci

    WHAT? By making MacAvoy’s character the audience surrogate, the film attempts to make us complicit in his colonialist tendencies. I think Macdonald is banking on MacAvoy’s charisma to get us over the hump of the second act where the character feels like a real dick all the time. And I think the ending gets a little too thriller-y, although I do like what the other doctor does at the end, an action that helps make this not be a “thank God for white people movie” since he’s the only real heroic character.

  • Fascinating, Jeremy.

  • And if someone finds himself sympathizing with Amin in this film, beyond simply feeling a pang of sadness for his childlike tendencies, then that person has serious issues. I’m just saying…

  • Jeremy Smith

    That’s the problem. I didn’t feel complicit. I just considered the guy an idiot and dismissed him, which left me with Amin, who was at least fascinating in his monstrousness. True, McAvoy gamely slathers on the charm, but he can’t fix what the writers have so thoroughly fucked up.

  • Maybe I just over-identified with his inability to nail Gillian Anderson.

  • Jeremy Smith

    See, I don’t have that problem because I’ve nailed Gillian Anderson.

  • Why did you consider him an idiot? Because you have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight no doubt. I think the arc is pretty clear and does not put Garrigan forth as a fool until he considers himself as much in the final act.

  • While I disagree with Mr. Smith about the qualities of the film in general, I can’t disagree that the lead character is an idiot. He’s a feckless dope who’s looking for adventure. He chooses his destination by chance and doesn’t even bother learning much about the country he’s traveling to. He’s a complete dipshit – but as opposed to Jeremy’s take, I found him to be a very appealing dipshit.

  • Jeremy Smith

    That’s pretty much it, Dev. And dipshit protagonists, with few exceptions (THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND not being one of them), only work in satire. It’s one thing to be naive, and quite another to be willfully so, which Garrigan is.
    And, yes, I get the whole metaphorical significance of the European protagonist charging blindly into a strange land, but it’s just too obvious and undercooked to have any resonance.
    And just to be clear, I’d be very happy to see Whitaker win Best Actor this year. This is a career defining performance.

  • I loved the film, but I agree that McAvoy’s character is hard to identify with. The character makes one decision that really felt convoluted and silly – sleeping with Idi Amin’s wife.
    You know, McAvoy’s starting to doubt Amin’s sanity and his own safety, so hmmm… I think I’ll sleep with his wife, that should solve my problems.
    But Whitaker owns this film. And Macdonald is skilled at progressing the narrative through brisk editing and on-the-fly camerawork.

  • Dixon Steele

    Haven’t seen the film yet, but I was watching Roeper & guest critic Kevin Smith last PM.
    Smith liked the movie and raved about Forest Whitaker’s performance, claiming him to be a lock for an Oscar nomination…for Best SUPPORTING Actor.
    He’s saying he wasn’t the lead (I guess that’s the white guy) but he thought that FW steals the movie outright.
    And it makes me wonder if he’s right to suggest that FW stands a much better chance at actually winning the Oscar if he goes in under this category, rather than the lead.
    And he’s probbaly right. Searchlight, are you reading this?
    P.S. Don’t bother using this post as a reason to unlease the usual anti-Kevin Smith nonsense.

  • sardine

    i was entranced! james mcavoy is marvelous, right up there with FW. And his character is one of the MOST LIKEABLE IN RECENT MOVIE HISTORY….