Whitaker alluring in 'Scotland'
Published: Friday, January 19, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 10:30 p.m.
In "The Last King of Scotland," when Idi Amin comes to power in 1971 he promises the people of Uganda he'll take the high road. Build bridges, schools, roads, the usual dictator to-do list.
Three hundred thousand corpses later…the low road was clearly more his style.
This smart, brilliantly acted film isn't a documentary or even an "inspired by." It's based on a work of fiction by Giles Foden, who imagines a relationship between the mercurial and bloodthirsty ruler (Golden Globe winner Forest Whitaker) and his personal physician, Nicholas Garrigan (the very good James McAvoy, who played Mr. Tumnus the faun in "The Chronicles of Narnia"). In short, the doctor is made-up, but Amin, who died in 2003, was all too real.
Fresh out of medical school and eager to escape his overbearing father, Nick spins a globe in his bedroom, planning to go wherever his finger lands. First spin, Canada. Too boring, reasons the scruffy-haired young Scott, and he spins again. This time the fickle finger of fate lands on Uganda. Not boring. Not a lot of other things, either, but, like so many well-intentioned, clueless Westerners before him, he heads to Africa with a thirst for the exotic and a vague notion of helping out the less fortunate.
Initially, he joins a committed doctor (Adam Kotz) and his stunning wife (Gillian Anderson) at a rural clinic. But a chance encounter with Amin leads to his being appointed the despot's personal physician and confidant — due, in no small part, to his Scottish heritage.
See, Amin is a freak for Scotland. He wears a kilt at public appearances and orders his dashiki-clad underlings to sing odes to the bonnie land. He is, he insists, the last king of Scotland, and, as such, even writes a mash note to Queen Elizabeth II.
For a while, Nick enjoys special privileges — a nice place in the royal compound, a Mercedes convertible, a constant flow of good scotch and beautiful women. He pretends not to notice when anyone who disagrees with Amin disappears, and chooses not to listen to a British ex-pat's (Simon McBurney, with bad Austin Powers teeth) plea to work with him to topple this monster. By the time Nick realizes he's a stupid little mouse who's foolishly wandered into a lion's den, it's too late.
Though "The Last King of Scotland" is nimbly directed by Kevin Macdonald, the picture is not quite up to the very high standard set by its lead actors. Yet again, Africa sacrifices itself to ensure the moral education of a European white male — a scenario that's by now a disturbing bit of tunnel vision. An ill-advised subplot in which Nick sleeps with one of Amin's wives (Kerry Washington) is as ludicrous as it is distracting, especially given what we already know about Nick's relationship with the despot. The ending, which borrows some of its horrors from the 1970 Richard Harris picture "A Man Called Horse," is unnecessarily gruesome.
That said, this is the sort of movie worth seeing for the performances alone. McAvoy cannily keeps the feckless Nick just likable enough so that we don't hunger for his comeuppance as much as wish he'd come to his senses. The young actor cleverly charts Nick's path from cocky favorite of an unpredictable ruler to just another minion in constant peril of incurring his boss's wrath.
And wrathful Whitaker can be, with a force we've never seen from him. Gone is the gentle soldier in "The Crying Game," the loosey-goosey Charlie Parker in "Bird." This is a towering portrayal — daring, playful, savage and more than a little insane. One moment, he's a jolly, doting Big Daddy, the next he's a livid tyrant with blood in his eyes (and on his hands).
Whitaker has that peculiar lightness of being bestowed on certain large men — John Goodman and John Belushi come to mind. It's an uncanny litheness that makes his whimsical, deranged despot all the more terrifying. The trouble with Sean Penn as Willie Stark in "All the King's Men" is he fails to find the lethal charm in his power-mad bully. Where Penn is red-faced and blockish, Whitaker is magnetic and mutable. He's created a villain as memorable, in his way, as Laurence Olivier's (or Ian McKellen's) Richard III or Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter. Or, for that, matter, the original Willie Stark, Broderick Crawford.
And Crawford, you may remember, won an Oscar for being bad to the bone.
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