The main character in “The Last King of Scotland”, Nicholas Garrigan, played by James McAvoy, begins by doing something a lot of us may have done at one point or another. He spins a globe and put his finger down, picking a random spot in the world. The only difference is that Garrigan actually goes there, beginning a long series of rash decisions that puts him in the middle of one of history’s notorious atrocities.
The film, directed by Kevin MacDonald, is based on events surrounding the presidency of Idi Amin, who ruled Uganda from 1971-1979. As his rule progressed, he became increasingly paranoid and unstable, giving himself the title of “Lord of all the beasts of the earth and fishes of the sea”, and ultimately being responsible for the deaths of more than 300,000 people.
After sticking his finger on Uganda, Garrigan, a Scottish doctor, joins a clinic in a provincial town. Amin, played by Forrest Whitaker, having taken control of the country, visits the village and meets Garrigan, immediately admiring his upfront manner and his heritage, having an admiration for all things Scottish. Soon, Garrigan finds himself Amin’s chief physician and most trusted advisor.
Things begin to go awry, and as much as he tries to ignore the murders and extortion, he eventually wises up. However, Amin will not let him leave, considering him to be like a son. Compounding this problem is Garrigan’s affair with one of Amin’s wives. Garrigan must escape the country and tell the world what is going on, but doing so proves dangerous.
Sadly, this story is the film’s weakest element. Garrigan’s actions throughout the movie are so impulsive and often stupid that it becomes extremely frustrating. You would hope that the main character in the film about a madman might have some sense about him, but in this case we have no such luck. A film without a hero of some nobility is a hard pill to take, and often ultimately meaningless. An occasional misstep can be accepted, but Garrigan’s constant entanglements with the wrong women and general ignorance of what is going on around him make him not innocently naïve, but idiotic.
Without a central axis on which to turn, the rest of the film seems empty. Even the atrocities that Amin commits do not have the weight that they should because they are largely ignored by Garrigan, our emissary into that world. There is also a void visually, with the film looking like the filmmakers took a cue from “The Constant Gardener” in their depiction of Africa. However, without the strong human connection, this is just bells and whistles.
Of course, the biggest draw of the film is Forest Whitaker’s performance as Amin, the role which will most likely win him the Best Actor prize at this year’s Academy Awards. He is totally transformed, and brings the right amount of charisma to the role to justify people’s willingness to follow him.
Amin is certainly an interesting enough figure to build a film around, but this isn’t the right vehicle. While Whitaker’s brilliance is enough to carry some scenes, as a whole the film falls apart, and many of the filmmaking choices feel as arbitrary as placing your finger on a spinning globe.