Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Last King of Scotland

"The Last King of Scotland" (Kevin Macdonald, 2006) Talk about lucky guys--at last year's Oscars, Peter Morgan was nominated for his screenplay for "The Queen," and the two leading actors of his screenplays won both Best Performance Awards: Helen Mirren for "The Queen," and Forrest Whitaker for this film. They both had great material to work with. Morgan's talents for breathing life and personality into history (catch his HBO film, "Longford," while you're at it) puts to shame the recent spate of "highlights-biographies" ("Ali," "Nixon," "Man on the Moon," "Chaplin," "Ray") that are like filmed Cliff Notes. And Whittaker is amazing in the film ("How'd they get him?" K. asked when he was first on screen. No, it's Forrest Whittaker), projecting the half-baked soul of Idi Amin Dada. It's a Supporting-sized role, but so large does Whittaker's portrayal loom over the movie that he dwarfs everyone else, even James McAvoy's starring performance as cocky Scotts physician Nicholas Garrigan, who goes looking for some selfish adventures and winds up being The Devil's Internist in Uganda. And what starts as lucky breaks for a kid out of medical school turns into a nightmare of bad choices as the wildly paranoid Amin sinks deeper into madness, torturing first his enemies, and then those in his circle of confidence. In a country run by a lunatic, its a short trip from adviser to being strung up from a meat-hook (lest you think, "Last King..." is as genteel as "The Queen," think again, the violence is bloody, and the torture is dwelled upon).

The director is Kevin Macdonald, a former documentarian, and he seems to have a problem with pace. "Last King" feels drawn out, and in need of additional editing (as did his previous film, the interminable "Touching the Void," which managed to make an incredible story something of a drag). But the sense of place and time feels genuine--you might not believe afterwards that the story is actually fictitious.

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