Idi Amin, the corrupt and brutal dictator, I say that like there is any other kind, of Uganda once called himself the king of Scotland. Thence came the title of the 1998 debut novel by Giles Foden, and also the title of the 2006 film from director Kevin MacDonald, his first non-documentary feature film. The Last King of Scotland has quite a few people talking about it, but with few theaters playing it so far it has remained little more than a talking point.
Set in the 1970’s Uganda of Idi Amin, the tale centers around the fictional character of Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a recent medical graduate so desperate to leave his dreary home behind that he spins a globe, closes his eyes, and resolves to go to where his finger lands. After taking a mulligan (why trade Scottish weather for Canadian?), Nicholas sets out for Uganda. There he settles into a small clinic with one other doctor (Adam Kotz’ Dr. Merrit) whose wife he fancies. It becomes more and more apparent that she fancies him as well, albeit reluctantly.
When the two of them travel to see an Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) rally, they are asked to help treat the new Ugandan leader for an injury suffered in a car accident. During the treatment, Nicholas impresses Amin for more reasons than his being Scottish, a people for whom the president has an affinity. When Amin sends for him a few days later and offers him the post of his personal physician, Nicholas, still smarting perhaps from Sarah Merrit’s (Gillian Anderson) rejection, accepts the position.
Before long, Dr. Garrigan has become Amin’s most trusted advisor, even filling in for him during important meetings when the dictator is away. But it soon becomes apparent that the affable Amin’s regime is not the idealistic crusade which he had promised. Garrigan becomes increasingly bothered by his suspicions, and when his lecherous ways once again tempt him, this time with his boss’ fourth wife, the poor young doctor finds himself in a dangerous situation from which he seems unable to extricate himself.
With a large budget new possibilities are available to a filmmaker that are out of the reach of a poorer production. And though these possibilities are just window dressing, they too often become the focus of the film. Things like expensive sets, equipment and special effects entice the foolish director away from the pillars of all good storytelling. But a shoe string budget leads him right back. The Last King of Scotland seems to have made do with less money. I am pretty sure they did not even shoot on the standard 35mm film. With less to work with, director Kevin MacDonald also had less to distract him. The movie survives on good actors, an interesting concept, a coherent plot and efficient storytelling.
Indeed, the story is told in such a lean manner that I don’t believe another cut could have been made to it. The camera does not waste any time lingering on shots for ambient effect, and there is just enough coverage in a given scene to get the point across before we move on to the next one. Likewise, little time is spent delving into the dynamics of a location or relationship or whatever it may be. We are given a touch or two here and there that serves to get the point across, and then the story moves on. It’s not quite what I would call a break neck pace, but it certainly won’t be mistaken for a David Lynch film.
While my preferences run towards a fuller storytelling that does delve into things a bit more, or a camera that takes its time to set a mood, I certainly can’t find fault with The Last King of Scotland. There is nothing indispensable missing; there simply isn’t anything else that isn’t absolutely essential. The movie is about telling a story and the story is streamlined… but it is also a very compelling story. Forest Whitaker’s performance, while it won’t be mentioned in the same breath with General Patton, Antonio Salieri or Hannibal Lector, is a fine one and deserving of accolades. No less impressive is James McAvoy or any of the other smaller parts.
There are few special effects, merely adequate sets and what seems to have been a lack of expensive cranes and other equipment behind the camera. But it proves yet again, for those who needed the lesson, what exactly is central to moviemaking and what is merely an aid. A stripped down but well wrought movie like The Last King of Scotland will trump The Fantastic Four every time.