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February 14, 2007
The power of Forest Whittaker's performance as ruthless dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is not rooted in his manic expressions of violence or anger. Rather it is the subtle way in which he charms and seduces the young Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan that proves most revelatory. The playful exchanges between these two characters are as funny as they are riveting. Whittaker actually makes Amin likable, and for this reason his eventual brutality is far more disturbing.

Unfortunately the complexity of Whittaker's soon to be Oscar-winning performance is rarely matched through the rest of Director Kevin MacDonald's semi-political thriller. While the acting is almost uniformly brilliant (especially Simon McBurney as a creepy British agent), the story deals with a theme of na´ve colonialism that we've seen rerun repeatedly since Conrad first published The Heart of Darkness more than 100 years ago. That's not to say that colonialism is no longer relevant (the connections to our own times are obvious), but this film does little towards shedding new light on the subject.

MacDonald's film is also heavily interested in the seduction of power, and the ways in which Garrigan in particular falls under the influence of Amin, immediately attracted to the authority and charm of the Ugandan ruler's words and literal size. He's also very easily flattered by the attention and prestige it gives his own career. Yet while there is a compelling narrative of personal struggle throughout, the African setting and focus on Amin prevent the psychology of Garrigan from ever becoming the audience's main interest or focus, and the fact that Garrigan's entire father complex is detailed in less than five minutes does little to help MacDonald's cause. There is, after all, a reason this film takes place in Uganda.

For all of the solid acting within it, MacDonald's film suffers for a lack of clear reasoning, its core ideas and motives muddled among the somewhat cheap elements of the plot. As Garrigan makes his way deeper into the thick of Amin's politics he also has a series of increasingly dangerous liaisons with married women. Within hours of his arrival in Uganda he is sleeping with an anonymous woman he picked up on a bus and, not long after, is courting his employer's radiant wife (played by a charming Gillian Anderson). While he doesn't get quite as far as he might have liked with Mrs. Merrit, he does succeed in fully wooing one of Amin's wives (Kerry Washington). The subsequent love affair is distracting and ultimately little more than a cheap narrative ploy, one that rings hollow in the face of genocide and tyranny. The tragic fall-out of his encounter with the women is perhaps meant to emphasize the eyes-shut na´vetÚ of both Garrigan and the audience. As viewers we are complicit for being distracted by the glossy sheen of this secret affair and by Amin himself - losing sight of the terror surrounding them - but MacDonald leaves us with few options. The movie itself is distracted.

The Last King of Scotland runs along a simple-enough outline; a young doctor goes into Africa looking to help and have a good time, but soon finds things are more complicated than he imagined. But what exactly he should do, other than the path he chooses, is not openly played. Should Garrigan have declined the opportunity to rebuild Uganda's health system with Amin? Perhaps MacDonald wants to imply that, had he stayed home and ignored Africa like everyone else, Garrigan would have been fine? Not only are these wafer-thin morals not pursued in the film, even if they had been they would fail to address the actual situation in Uganda. We shake our heads in disapproval at the doctor, but there isn't much more the film asks us to do. It's an entertaining ride, but ultimately a rather pointless one as well.

Rating: 7/10

SEE ALSO: www.foxsearchlight.com/lastkingofscotland

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Imran Siddiquee
Imran Siddiquee is a freelance writer pursuing self-expression in all its forms. This includes the occasional contribution to LAS as well as writing blogs, essays, short stories, an unpublished novel and some screenplays. He also creates horribly amateur music with his brother Yusuf.

See other articles by Imran Siddiquee.

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