March 15, 2007 — In "The Last King of Scotland," 2007 Oscar winner Forest Whitaker takes on possibly the most ambitious role of his career, as the bloodthirsty Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.
New Yorker critic David Denby says, "Whitaker makes Amin a charismatic madman. In this role, he has transformed himself — he's either sprawled in a stupor or alarmingly mobile, throwing his big body around the room as if it weighed nothing. His laugh is enormous, and his arms are like grappling hooks. The dictator has a terrifying affability: like many sociopaths, he can be surprisingly empathic."
When Amin came into power in a military coup in Uganda in 1971, he promised the people to build bridges, schools and roads, which he did, telling his people he would "take the high road."
"Three hundred thousand corpses later, the low road was clearly more his style," says Eleanor Ringel Gillespie in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"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 (an Oscar-worthy Forest Whitaker) and his personal physician, Nicholas Garrigan (the very good James McAvoy). In short, the doctor is made up, but Amin, who died in 2003, was all too real."
Whitaker made good on Gillespie's prediction, outdoing himself by all accounts.
The title of book and the film refers to Amin's taste for bagpipes, outlandish cultural appropriation and sympathy for anyone who shared his feelings regarding the British Empire.
Garrigan comes to Amin's notice when Amin is involved in a minor traffic accident. Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune describes the scene: "Garrigan takes care of Amin by the side of the road and, desperate to put a badly injured cow out of its misery, he grabs Amin's pistol and fires. The president shoots the doctor a look that could kill. Thanks to Whitaker, whose actorly capacity for debauched rage turns out to be as expansive as his smile, it's a look you cannot help but believe."
Phillips continues, "Just as suddenly the menace vanishes. Amin learns the doctor is Scottish. He loves the Scottish. In a flash Uganda's leader transforms into a beaming, laughing bonfire, seducing yet another victim to get closer to the flames."
The movie traces Garrigan's charged relationship with the dictator, and, with one of his three wives, along with another romance the doctor is carrying on with the wife (Gillian Anderson) of his medical director. Phillips says, "This affair feels like a stretch in terms of credibility, more a function of plot than character. In general it takes an awfully long time for Garrigan, punch-drunk with newfound political influence, to wise up to the murderous rot.
"Whitaker, by contrast," Phillips says, "never misses a beat of his character's heart. His Amin is a fantastic, kaleidoscopic array of moods and emotional temperatures. Teasing Garrigan for being 'very naughty,' or lowering the boom with a bear hug and a chilling statement — 'Uganda embraces you' — Whitaker careens from one state of mind to the next."
And Phillips has praise for the director: "The film deploys a grim political backdrop for highly charged dramatic ends. Kevin Macdonald, a documentary filmmaker [is] making his fiction film feature debut. (He won an Oscar for his Munich Olympics hostage chronicle, 'One Day in September.') Shooting in Uganda with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, Macdonald offers high-contrast, deeply saturated images of a poor country dominated by rich greens and browns. The look of the film isn't fussy or overcomposed; you wouldn't mistake it for an Alan Parker or Ridley Scott picture. The pacing's brisk, and the script is light on the speechifying. It all looks and feels very '70s, not just in setting but in technique."
"The Last King of Scotland" may be the doctor's story, says Phillips, but, "for better or for worse, it is Whitaker's movie."
And about time, say critics who have admired Whitaker's range and skill in the past. He played the enigmatic jazz legend, Charlie Parker, in Clint Eastwood's biopic, "Bird," in 1988, which earned him Best Actor honors at the Cannes film festival.
In "Good Morning, Vietnam" (1987), Whitaker shone as Robin Williams' sidekick, a likable big man too timid for his own body. He broke hearts as a grossly misguided British soldier in "The Crying Game."
Whitaker said, in part, in his acceptance speech "When I first started acting, it was because of my desire to connect to everyone — to that thing inside each of us. That light that I believe exists in all of us. Because acting for me is about believing in that connection, and it's a connection so strong, it's a connection so deep, that we feel it. And through our combined belief, we can create a new reality."
The movie runs two hours, and is rated R for some strong violence and gruesome images, sexual conduct and language.
It starts Thursday at Market Square East.
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