Thursday, February 15, 2007

FILM: "The Last King of Scotland"

The Last King of Scotland may be remembered as a political film for the ease in which it portrays the circular violence of Uganda, or it may be remembered as a period piece, blending culture with the grainy colored textures of 70s film. Some may just remember it for the overwhelming presence of Forest Whitaker, who takes on the charismatic butcher, Idi Amin. Whatever the case, The Last King of Scotland is a memorable film, distinctly shot in sharp hues and with shaky angles, and frightening in its unrestrained look at the behind-the-scenes trauma of a war.

It's hard to do a historical thriller (as the well-read will always know what's coming) but director Kevin Macdonald keeps us on our toes by keeping the focus on a foreign doctor, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), even in scenes where Whitaker is all but demanding our utmost attention. This young Scotsman gives a credible mien of naivety when the bodies start piling up, and it also makes the rebel forces out to be the villains (an impressive reminder to make about our otherwise clear-cut definitions of “good” and “bad”). After all, only a criminal would ambush a procession of cars and take shots at Dr. Garrigan—we manage to forget that Idi Amin's sitting right next to him.

In fact, we manage to forget that Idi Amin is a psychopathic killer; at least up until the point that Whitaker reminds us, with a savage reversal, that he is far from the farting, weak-minded clown that he has painted himself to be. He is a jovial bear, yes, but he is also a violent killer too, and when he finally begins to turn on Garrigan—slowly, just enough to make us believe he's having a bad day—we can almost see Amin as a victim too, a prisoner of his own paranoia. Macdonald sustains the illusion by carefully choosing the light in which he casts Amin – for example, the first time we see him, he is in the background, standing posed like a Greek hero, with a tribe of African villagers clustered around his tank in adoration. It's a brief glimpse out of the window as Garrigan enters the country, but even then, we are drawn to the dominating presence of this dictator.

It's easy to create a villain, but to do what Whitaker and Macdonald have done here—to make a villain into a likable character—is miraculous. What's more, they actually turn us against the protagonist, which is hard to do since he's a cherubic, younger version of Ewan McGregor. Films are nothing more than a matter of perspective, and for all the loose shots of the film, it's surprising to realize how utterly in control this director is. By the time the real terrors start—and there are some graphic scenes toward the end of this piece—it's too late to get out of the theater. We're as implicit in what we've seen as Garrigan himself, which I assume is part of the point. We enjoy Whitaker's performance, but that means we also, to some extent, enjoy the character that he's playing. We spend the majority of the film basking in the warm glow of the touristy side of Uganda, all to happy to leave the dank confines of the backward clinic in Uganda that Dr. Gallaghan starts in, which is another strike against us.

There are a few poor choices in the later half of the film: Amin's sudden aggression toward Garrigan is explainable by the fact that he's been cuckolded by the “good” doctor. Though the punishment he comes up with is overly sadistic, even in this moment of intense brutality, it's hard to completely disparage Amin. He is confronting betrayal with the only method he knows of correcting it, and when he realizes that he has gone too far, that he has lost it, he's once more the playful bear again, a puzzled, ill-at-ease soldier, just looking to be loved by the world. But this too is the point; Giles Foden's novel isn't interested in a “black” villain; he wants all the shades of gray in between, too.

I wholeheartedly recommend this film: the relentless pacing, the masterful scenework, and the travelogue footage all blend together to make The Last King of Scotland the first thing I've not panned this year. This is your chance to see character going hand-in-hand with cinema, and one more reminder of how powerful film can be.

[First posted to Gather, 2/13]

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