Like most movie fans, I heard considerable buzz about The Last King of Scotland during Oscar season earlier this year. While I usually try to see all Oscar contenders in major categories, I deliberately kept putting this particular film off because I was under the impression that it was mostly about Idi Amin’s politics — not something I was interested in seeing at all.
But then I discovered that Gillian Anderson was in this, and, being a huge fan of her work, I finally decided to rent the film and give it at least 30 minutes to draw me in. I sat there for a half an hour, and by that time was completely absorbed with what was going on. This turned out to be an excellent movie, so I’m glad I finally gave it a try!
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): The Last King of Scotland isn’t so much a political thriller as it is a work of historical fiction. In other words, the screenwriters mixed real people, places, and events with fictional ones to create this story, which is seen through the eyes of young Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (played by James McAvoy).
After taking his degree in Scotland, Garrigan can’t bear the thought of turning into a crusty old doctor like his father. Instead, he craves adventure, and decides to travel to Uganda where he’ll work as an assistant to Dr. Merrit (Adam Kotz) and his wife Sarah (Anderson) at their tiny clinic in an impoverished part of the country.
One day, Nicholas and Sarah hear that the old president has been overthrown in a coup d’etat, and that a military leader, Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), has taken his place. Sarah seems distressed by this news, but Nicholas is excited. It’s just all part of the adventure to him. He convinces Sarah to go watch Amin deliver a speech, and it’s clear that Nicholas thinks Amin is pretty charismatic.
As Nicholas and Sarah are driving home, they’re suddenly overtaken by a car from Amin’s entourage. The new president has been in an accident and needs a doctor immediately. Nicholas and Sarah arrive on the scene to discover that Amin has a broken wrist. Nicholas treats the injury, and gets to talking with Amin. Amin takes a liking to this young man (he already has an affinity for all things Scottish), and several days later, extends a job offer. Nicholas is to move to Kampala to be Amin’s personal physician.
From that point forward, the film deals with the developing relationship between Nicholas and Amin. At first, Nicholas gets drawn in by the dictator’s charisma and by the power he derives by being part of the inner circle. He fails to see that Amin is mentally unstable and a brutal killer to boot, until Amin starts lashing out at Nicholas himself. Nicholas then gets caught up in a deadly chain of events that nearly cost him his life, before escaping the country by posing as a French hostage.
My Reaction: I was surprised at how engrossing this story was right from the start. I liked the premise of having the story told from Nicholas’ point of view instead of from Amin’s. It was easy to identify with Nicholas as the outsider, the newcomer intoxicated by his sudden proximity to power. Yes, the character made colossally stupid decisions and was at times insufferable, but he was a young man fresh out of university. It’s hard to imagine anyone acting any other way in his situation.
I thought Gillian Anderson was fantastic as Sarah; I only wish she had been in the film longer than she was. I found her scenes with Nicholas to be engaging, even though I knew as soon as the two appeared on screen together that there would be some sort of lustful undertone to their association.
Forest Whitaker was simply awesome as Amin, and I can easily see why he won the Best Actor Oscar. He could go from charismatic to scary, from stable to insane in a matter of seconds. I was terrified of Amin, and can’t believe that Nicholas was able to hang in there as long as he did. For example, when Amin took his Scottish passport and replaced it with a Ugandan one, I would have taken that as a clue to get the hell out of Dodge.
Several of the plot points seemed highly contrived, especially the part about Nicholas sleeping with one of Amin’s wives. By then, Nicholas knew damn well that Amin was off his rocker, so I don’t believe for a second that he would have risked his life like that. Plus, they walked off together at a freakin’ party with, like, 100 witnesses around. No one is that stupid!
Overall, I thought The Last King of Scotland was an excellent film that lives up to all its Oscar buzz. I give it 4 stars out of 5, and recommend that you rent it soon. I think you’ll be as pleasantly surprised by it as I was!