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The Last King of Scotland
Kevin Macdonald

Laure Thomas
posted 13 February 2007

The Last King of Scotland is a fictionalised account, based on Giles Foden's novel, of Idi Amin's personal descent into madness and paranoia. It is set in a time and place which saw one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of post-colonial Africa unfold, but focuses on the man not the people. Hence, you walk out of the film feeling sullied by having spent two hours getting personal with Uganda's brutal dictator, a man with whom you have no more desire to empathise than with Hitler.

Still, as uncomfortable as it may feel, the film works both as entertainment and as food for thought. It kicks off with newly qualified medic Dr Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) leaving his parents' stifling, patriarchal, middle-class Scottish household in search of adventure and imbued with the god complex not unknown to many a young doctor. He ends up in a mission in rural Uganda at the time of Amin's coup in 1971. Shot on location, the cinematography is quite simply mesmerising and draws you in right from the start with the dancing and chanting of an electrifying Amin rally scene. Nothing can prepare you for Forest Whitaker's entrance as Idi Amin, he is utterly convincing with his searching eyes and Ugandan accent. He immediately shows the viewer how Amin was able to get away with so much for so long: the sheer strength of his presence.

In an incident which does call for the suspension of our disbelief, Amin meets Dr Garrigan after a road accident in which the new leader hurts his hand. The doctor patches him up, impresses him with his rash Scottish brazenness and the dictator charms him back with his love for Scotland and his indisputable charisma. Having impressed the new ruler of Uganda, young Nicholas Garrigan is overcome by hubris. He makes a move on Mrs Merrit (played by a barely recognisable Gillian Anderson), the wife of the English doctor he has come to assist. This incident establishes a character flaw: despite his rather lovely and boyish good nature, Garrigan's egotism means he disregards the impact of his actions on those around him. He goes on to leave the mission when called upon by Amin to act as his personal physician in the country's capital Kampala. Awed by the wealth and splendour of life in the Amin court, Garrigan closes his eyes to Amin's growing insanity and violence.

This is a difficult part for James McAvoy. Garrigan is the anti-hero par excellence. Garrigan displays such naivety and recklessness that it is hard to muster sympathy for him. In the final act, Amin accuses him of having 'played the white man' and tells him 'we are not a game, we are real'. You find yourself almost siding with Amin, despite his abhorrent behaviour, out of annoyance with the rather lame Garrigan, whose response to the unfolding evidence of the regime's corrupt brutality had been to try to run. The British official he turns to for help is baffled at how limited an idea someone supposedly so close to Amin had of what was really going on in the country. 'Is that your excuse? It's pathetic!'

But Garrigan's ultimate downfall is not down to his links to the British or any rebellion against Amin. Chercher la femme... From the start of the film it is clear that despite his noble intentions, Garrigan is in Africa to 'steal and fuck', as Amin says of white men who have come and gone. In the end it is his affair with Amin's second wife Kay which seals his fate and hers. The stunning Kerry Washington who plays Kay is perfect as the personification of African beauty.

While on one level The Last King of Scotland takes the form of a 'coming of age' movie, it is rather more besides; Garrigan isn't someone who loses his childhood sweetheart to his best mate. What he is confronted with when he finally delves deep into the heart of Uganda is more reminiscent of Conrad's novel than a mere rite of passage. The film brilliantly tackles some unsettling issues concerning the West's relationship to Africa, without breaking up the pace of the storytelling. From the mission doctor and his wife who surrender their lives unequivocally out of a sense of duty, to the British officials hoist on their own petard - supporting Amin originally, then incapable of stopping him when they realise their mistake, to Garrigan who naively thought he could make a difference without effort or self-sacrifice, simply by being there, it explores the different relationships between white and black. The film's message - if it has one - seems to be that no one should walk in to a foreign land assuming they know what is best, though this is not an excuse for doing nothing to relieve suffering or lend assistance. But ultimately, The Last King of Scotland is simply a great film.


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