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MOVIE REVIEW

'King' is watered down with soapy solution

"The Last King of Scotland" is set in the 1970s during President Idi Amin's horrific eight-year-rule of Uganda, and for many of the movie's early scenes, the camera has a tough time finding a local face to get lost in.

There are plenty of options. But since the movie is a confused cautionary tale about what happens to impressionable foreigners seduced by an exotic locale, we're furnished, instead, with numerous shots of our protagonist, a young white doctor named Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), who's come from Scotland to do good.

His home was a cold and dreary bore. This new place, a former British colony that Amin has just overtaken in a military coup, is exotic, hot, and moves fast. (Not long after he's hit African soil, Nick beds a woman he meets on a bus.)

Pretty soon he makes his way to a big public assembly, and we discover that the movie's been holding out for that local face. It's Amin's. Exhilarated, the camera races right up to Forest Whitaker, who plays the president, and gets close enough for us to count his pores and admire his lopsided eyes. In this electric moment, he blasts out a speech that rocks the crowd.

Here, you understand immediately how Amin came to seduce and destroy a nation, leaving as many as half-a-million people murdered. To some extent, innocent Nick falls in love at first sight with Amin's obvious power, and to a more unsettling degree so does the movie, which Kevin Macdonald directs from a novel by Giles Foden. ``The Last King" is turned on by Amin's menace but demonstrates only a passing regard for the scope of his malevolence.

After Nick happens upon an injured Amin and tends to him on the side of a road, the president winds up making Nick his personal physician and later his personal adviser. (If he weren't Ugandan, Amin says, he'd be a Scotsman.) In turn, the doctor finds himself drawn into one trashy development after the next, accepting Amin's complimentary Mercedes convertible and spouting rhetoric he knows nothing about: ``This is Africa. You meet violence with violence. Anything less, and you're dead!"

The lives of the doctor and the dictator become entangled. Nick spies an Amin associate at a nightclub and reports back that the man must have been up to no good. Later, Nick begins sleeping with Kay (Kerry Washington), the youngest and comeliest of Amin's wives. The affair and its gruesome fallout drive the back half of the picture, which all-too-happily becomes a laughable potboiler.

This focus on a soap-opera romance illuminates the movie's biggest flaw. While Kay and Nick are sneaking behind Amin's back, Amin is slaughtering thousands behind ours. The movie provides the barest inkling of the atrocities (rapid montages here and there) without directly laying crimes at the regime's feet. The only person captured truly suffering is poor fictional Nick.

In this sense, ``The Last King of Scotland" joins the ranks of nightmarish innocents-abroad movies, from ``Midnight Express" to ``Hostel," where the disillusioned hero fights to return to civility.

This being an African version, the filmmakers deploy all the savage trimmings, including Nick's trip to a bleating, haunted house of a hospital, which, gallingly enough, is paired with erotic moaning on the soundtrack. The only person in the movie with any sense is a blond Gillian Anderson, as a doctor's British wife, last glimpsed on a bus full of locals, getting out of Dodge. Lucky them.

In ``One Day in September," a documentary about the hostage-taking at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and the rock-climbing thriller ``Touching the Void," Macdonald turned true stories into compelling docudrama. Here, he lacks the steady moral hand required for a tale about human evil.

Only a fool could leave this movie thinking Amin was decent. But only a fool could make a film of Amin that didn't treat his inhumanity as more than a character flaw. (Disgraced, Amin fled Uganda in 1979 for Iraq and later Saudi Arabia, where he died, remorseless, in 2003.)

Forest Whitaker has a gift for disappearing inside a character's fractured state of mind-- think Charlie Parker in ``Bird" or the assassin in ``Ghost Dog"-- which should have made him ideal to play Amin.

But the screenplay, by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock, fails him by giving Amin no ostensible psychology, only a desire to charm. Whitaker conveys an intense mess of facial tics and intimidating mannerisms. But what is he thinking? So often, Whitaker shrewdly conveys a regressive dimension in the men he plays. But if the filmmakers intend Amin's happy-go-lucky demeanor and his reliance upon his advisers as signs of childishness (Nick accuses him of as much), Whitaker sends the character into a cartoonish realm. He's the tyrant as Yogi Bear.

Amin might have been a completely outward character. But for Macdonald to film him repeatedly as a rock star (one press conferences seems like something out of a Jay-Z video) means he's missed the warning of his own cautionary tale. It also speaks curious truth to Amin's power. Prolonged exposure to this man, even in death, can impoverish anybody's judgment. ``The Last King of Scotland" has too good a time turning a bad education into a titillating horror show.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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