Fri, Feb 02, 2007 - Page 17 News List

Iago meets Othello

'The Last King of Scotland' is a powerful thriller that recreates on screen the world of Uganda under the mad dictatorship of Idi Amin

By Philip French  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Forest Whitaker was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Idi Amin in the The Last King of Scotland.


For a variety of reasons — the lure of the exotic, a defense of imperialism, an assertion of the superiority of Western civilization — there have been endless novels, plays, films and travel books over the past two centuries depicting the African continent as a dangerous, alluring, mysterious place populated by simple but often kindly and devoted natives (devoted to Europeans, that is) led by wild, cruel, unpredictable chieftains.

This tradition reached a peak of some kind in Evelyn Waugh's Black Mischief in 1932, a dubious comic masterpiece about the megalomaniac Emperor of Azania and his white hangers-on. Giles Foden's novel The Last King of Scotland, adeptly adapted for the cinema by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock, is, like various novels by William Boyd, an extension of this stream of writing about Africa and a criticism of the patronizing values that lie beneath.

At the center of The Last King of Scotland is the relationship between a character invented by Foden — a young Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan, very much a product of the permissive 1960s, played persuasively by James McAvoy — and the posturing Ugandan dictator, General Idi Amin (a towering performance by Forest Whitaker), a very real, larger-than-life monster, who might well have been invented by Waugh.

Indeed, back in 1974, French moviemaker Barbet Schroeder conned the conceited Amin into appearing in a full-length documentary, subtitled "a self-portrait," that presented him as a brutal, vainglorious idiot and was acclaimed as the funniest thing to come out of Africa since Black Mischief.

Since then, a variety of actors have impersonated Amin. There have been three versions of the celebrated Entebbe incident of 1976, in which Israeli commandos rescued the passengers of a hijacked airliner taken to Uganda by terrorists and welcomed by Amin. During the production of Marvin Chomsky's Victory at Entebbe, Godfrey Cambridge, the actor playing Amin, died on set; according to the general, this resulted from a curse placed on him. There was also Amin: The Rise and Fall, directed by Kenyan filmmaker Sharad Patel, a crude, blood-thirsty affair, in which Amin was shown as a cross between Hermann Goering and a less benevolent King Kong.

Film Notes:

The Last King of ScotlandDirected by: Kevin MacDonaldStarring: Forest Whitaker (Idi Amin), James McAvoy (Nicholas Garrigan) Kerry Washington (Kay Amin) Gillian Anderson (Sarah Merrit) Simon McBurney (Nigel Stone) David Oyelowo (Dr. Junju) Abby Mukiibi Nkaaga (Masanga) Running time: 125 minutesTaiwan release: Today

This movie is in a quite different class and sees director Kevin Macdonald move happily from documentaries into fiction without losing any sense of urgency. His presentation of intimate dialogues is as confident as his handling of parties, rallies and press conferences. Like most large-scale Western pictures about Africa (Cry Freedom, for instance, or The Constant Gardener), the events are seen from the point of view of a European.

The narrative follows a familiar strategy of someone observing a person he initially admires become corrupted by ambition and power. In Citizen Kane, Jed Leland is disillusioned by the conduct of his closest friend. In All the King's Men, liberal journalist Jack Burden sees Willie Stark/Huey Long betray his declared principles. In Downfall, Hitler's last days are viewed through the eyes of his devoted secretary, Traudl Junge, though it was not until well after his death that disillusion set in.

This film is set very firmly between the coup against the corrupt government of Milton Obote that brought Amin to power in 1971 and the 1976 raid on Entebbe that finally made him an international pariah. Right from the beginning, the characters of the doctor and Amin are sharply etched. Nicholas is shown plunging drunk into a loch with fellow medical graduates, rejecting the prospect of joining his staid father's general practice and closing his eyes and stabbing a spinning globe to discover a place of escape. He exchanges the good, real father, a solid man of probity, for the bad surrogate father, a charismatic, rabble-rousing demagogue.

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