Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Last King of Scotland. B+

Having not seen The Last King of Scotland when Kevin Macdonald's State of Play came out, I remarked how it was strange for the director to make such a great leap from historical drama to political thriller. Because of my ignorance I was deceived, for upon seeing The Last King of Scotland, I now see that it is every bit as much a political thriller as State of Play is. That's why Macdonald had such a firm grasp on the material in his serious-minded but playfully presented 2009 thriller. The Last King of Scotland surprised me a great deal. As you can probably tell, I was expecting the great dramatic telling of Uganda's notorious leader Idi Amin. Instead I got an adventure of a young Scottish doctor named Nicholas (James McAvoy) who becomes Amin's personal physician/assistant. The trajectory is predictable but truly thrilling as Nicholas admires Amin only to slowly see what a monster he really is. And while the movie focuses on Nicholas, it's not just about him. After all, Forrest Whitaker won an Oscar for playing Amin, and though we never get inside his head, we still get a solid portrait of the man. Macdonald's film does not attempt to wangle Amin in any way. It's purpose, besides being a thriller, is to show us why it's a thriller. Because Amin was a man on the edge, someone liable to explode even in a time of celebration. "You're just a child," Nicholas tells him at one point. "That's why you're so scary." As naturally as Whitaker seems to fit into the role, he was not an instant choice. He had to earn the role because prior to it, he was an actor known for his gentleness. No one knew if he had the anger and the intensity to play such a role as this. That Whitaker appears as though he was born for the role is a testament as to how good an actor he really is. And the performance isn't just great when he shows the monstrous side of Amin, but when we see him relaxing and having a good time, his persuasive smile filling his face. But this is still just as much about Nicholas, and McAvoy does a good job of holding his own against the force of Whitaker's vibrant acting. This is not the great Idi Amin movie, but it's about as good a one as I think will ever by made. The reason is because no one really knows this guy, and thus a grand biopic from the inside would be a great challenge. So Maconald settled for the next best option, to make a thriller. And that he certainly did.

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