Forest Whitaker (“Platoon,” “Bird”) has come along way since his cameo as the hard-hitting all-American high school football star in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” “The Last King of Scotland” marks the magnificent character actors’ 40th feature film and his performance is not only prime Oscar fare but one of the best of his career. This being said, the film itself, while being incredibly suspenseful and interesting, at times feels like nothing more than a vehicle for Whitaker to shine in his flawless portrayal of the former Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin.
Whitaker is no stranger to playing the role of scene-stealer. Throughout his career he has nailed some of the most noteworthy roles in brilliant films such as Jim Jarmusch’s “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai” and Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game,” to the more mediocre fare like “Phone Booth” or 1995s creature feature, “Species.” Whether the material is thick or thin, Whitaker somehow always manages to mold his multi-faceted roles into intriguing standout characters.
In “Scotland” Whitaker devours his role as Uganda’s former dictator and worldly monster down to the finest of details. Besides mastering the thick Central African accent, Whitaker fully embodies the almost bipolar aspects of Amin. When he is first introduced Amin is jovial and inspiring to both the naïve protagonist on screen, Nicholas Garrigan (McAvoy), but also to the audience despite our predisposed knowledge of the horror’s to come. As the film progresses and things fall apart, we see the darker side of Amin erupt on screen. This kind of stellar acting feat is what made us sympathize with past venomous celluloid characters such as Adolph Hitler in 2004s “The Downfall’s” or to an extent the fictional Dr. Hannibal Lector–through raw humanism and benevolence even the most horrific of characters can draw us in and toy with our emotions.
“Scotland” is based off a number of different personal accounts and stories about Amin’s brutal term as President of Uganda during the 70s. The young Garrigan is a brash, recently appointed Scottish doctor who decides he’s not cut out for the simple and trite medical practice of his father’s. Through a literally random choice he decides to move to Uganda and try something exotic and, according to him, “fun.” Not too long after he begins his aid work he is befriended by the recently appointed Amin, again through an act of shear randomness.
Amin, admiring the young doctor’s fearless and uncorrupted nature and impartiality to British/Ugandan politics, decides to hire Garrigan on as his own personal physician, a job that he accepts almost entirely on the latent prospect of a more glamorous and possibly exciting future. Garrigan has no real knowledge of the history of Uganda or Amin and as he moves closer and closer into Amin’s personal circle of trust and the chaos that surrounds him we watch his naïve nature slowly peel away.
McAvoy nails his performance as Garrigan but fails to truly leave us with any lasting impression of his portrayal. When it’s all said and done, one can’t help but wonder if some other young Scottish actor could have equaled or bested Garrigan. Ultimately McAvoy serves as nothing more than an aid/fuel for Whitaker’s immaculate adaptation of Amin.
“The Last King of Scotland” is worth seeing, if anything because of Whitaker’s performance. The film is an honest and sobering look into the tortured soul of one of history’s many depraved dictators. Similarly to 2004s “Hotel Rwanda,” which featured a stellar performance by Don Cheadle but was ultimately a fairly forgettable film, “Scotland” is an interesting look at one of history’s bleaker chapters but fails to present any awe-inspiring messages. The film may not leave as lasting impression on you as say other eye opening films like, “The Downfall” or this year’s highly overlooked Indian film, “Water,” however, come Oscar season one can only hope that Whitaker’s performance gets the nod he deserves.