« Little Children… | Main | Attempting to Get a Vibe… »

September 12, 2006
The Best Film of the Festival

Attempting to capture history on screen is something that is seemingly done all the time. Even when the result is something worthy of its subject and/or manages to entertain, seldom are such films original or any more effective than dozens of other historical dramas produced in any one year. When a movie comes along that actually does something different within this broad genre – while also managing to be gripping, suspenseful, powerful and socially relevant – it’s truly a treat to see. “The Last King of Scotland” is such a film.

As is the case in the novel upon which this film is based, the story is observed by young Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan, who comes to Uganda out of medical school to assist in missionary work. Notice that it is seen from Garrigan's eyes...not heard from it. The filmmakers are more than confident that the dialogue, action and visuals are sufficient for the viewer to be compelled by the story without feeling the need to resort to voiceover (which must have been very tempting). And were they ever right.

Due to a chain of events, Garrigan soon finds himself Amin’s personal physician and one of his closest advisors. It this seems unlikely, it is because it is. Yet what is easily understood is what Amin sees in Nicholas…and what Nicholas sees in Amin. The ‘attraction’ (for desperate want of a better word) between the two men feels extremely honest and believable.

Despite the moral uneasiness that the audience – and Nicholas – feel as he leaves his missionary post, it’s easy to see why he does it. Amin’s world is actually fun, and the viewer is truly enjoying the experience. Like Garrigan and most of the Ugandan people, the audience is blinded by the charisma of Amin. Garrigan is happily not only caring for the President and his family but also working at a new hospital and caring for the Ugandan people.


Yet before long, the President’s behaviour becomes questionable; Nicholas brushes it off. Soon after this, the behaviour turns suspicious; Nicholas continues to close his eyes to it. Throughout all this, however, not only do we understand Nicholas’ motivations but we also question what we would do if we were in his shoes. As Amin obviously becomes a paranoid barbarian – even to Nicholas, who realizes his complicity in Amin’s actions – he can’t release himself from under the President's spell and find the ability to leave.

With Nicholas knowing that he must leave but finding himself unable to do so, the third act of the film is absolutely spellbinding. The last 40 minutes are ‘on the edge of one’s seat’. The last 10 minutes are heart-poundingly transfixing. Further serious complications to the plot are introduced late in the film (often a disastrous thing to do) yet they just deepen the story, setting up the unforgettable finale.

One of the best things about the film is how Kevin Macdonald is able to fashion the tone. For much of the film, it is joyous. At other times, dramatic. At still more, frightening. These shifts in tone flow extremely well, making the film tremendously entertaining, and never feeling inappropriate despite the nature of the story. In fact, considering the changes going on in Garrigan’s mind, the changes in tone are essential. This is, after all, being seen by him.

Might I also add the ‘look’ of the film gradually changes throughout the narrative. This is done very subtly and it’s all the better because of it. But when one compares the opening shot to the final one, it is clear Macdonald fashioned the mood of the film in the most brilliant of ways. The use of music in the film, blending songs with Alex Heffes’ (very fine) original score, is also very well done.

The use of an observer as a protagonist is tricky. Yet this film does it amazingly. The viewer feels as though they are truly in Uganda in a way they never would have been had Amin been the focus of every scene. Moreover, unlike “All the King’s Men” (which disastrously employs this technique), the writing and direction remain focused on the events that the film actually revolves around. All in all, the fashioning of the story around Nicholas is extremely affecting and compelling.

Much of the credit for the success of this must go the young and talented James McAvoy. The ‘observational protagonist’ is a tremendously challenging role to play, as it necessitates being intimately involved in every scene yet allowing for others to upstage you in many, if not most, scenes. And does he ever pull it off, flawlessly showing his character’s arc and making him extremely relatable despite not shying away from his flaws (which are identifiable but still the cause of his downfall). His inability to say no to Amin is especially powerful as it’s hard to imagine anyone in his position being able to do otherwise. His far too great a fondness for others men’s wives is also not shied away from; a trait that could be portrayed in a manner way over the top, he instead handles it extremely well.


Forest Whitaker’s take on Idi Amin is simply astounding. I cannot remember Idi Amin so I don’t know how well he actually captured the general’s physical mannerisms (if most people seem to think he did). But he certainly is utterly captivating on screen. He is thoroughly charming at times. Understatedly powerful at others. Grippingly compelling at still more. Throughout all this, the evil of the character is lurking underneath. And can he ever be scary…despite seldom being personally violent. Despite all these different aspects to Amin's personality, Whitaker truly makes the character feel like 'one man' throughout. I cannot imagine how this role could have been better played.

What is perhaps the film's greatest achievement is how it manages to be so entertaining and gripping while still being true to the history it tells. Some will undoubtedly argue that the movie differs too far from history. Yet as is, it feels more engaging, compelling and - believe it or not – honest than any of the dime a dozen historical dramas that come out every year. Rather than simply offering morality, the film actually offers insight into how events like those in Uganda can come to happen. It reminds the viewer of the tragic events of Amin's regime, while showing how a such a relatable man could end up so complicit in them. And it is demonstrative of how dangerous not looking beyond a man's surface-level charms can be. And in none of these instances does it beat the viewer of the head with its message yet rather lets the events on screen speak for themselves.

I’m not so sure “The Last King of Scotland” will ultimately get the attention it deserves. If not marketed properly, it could easily get lost among bigger fall films with bigger stars. Nor does it have the inspirational factor that a film such as “Catch a Fire” has. Yet seldom have I been more affected by or involved in a feature film. And I can tell you this is a movie that will stick with me for a long time yet to come.

Easily the best film of the festival. And just behind “United 93” for the status of best film of the year.


Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)