March 5, 2007

Last King of Scotland

I remember Forest Whitaker as the gentle giant playing one half of the duo that make Jodie Foster's life hell in Panic Room. You’d also remember Forest from films like Battlefield Earth, Phone Booth and of course as Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood's Bird but nothing prepares you for the towering performance that he comes up with in The Last King of Scotland. Till now many have heard of Idi Amin and if you put some stress on your brain cells you might also come up with an image that goes with all the horrific things you must have read but that will change once you see Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland.

The film is told from the eyes of a young Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan who decides to far away from his father’s ranting. He’s a doctor in the family of doctors and his father doesn’t leave any opportunity to rub it in that the older one’s better. Garrigan spins a globe in his room and decides to take off to the first place his finger lands on. The spinning quite literally forewarns you about the journey he’s about to undertake. Garrigan takes off to Uganda though it’s not the first place his fingers land on; it was Canada and he decides to erase that from the record. It’s the 70’s and Garrigan lands in Uganda on the eve of the coup that brings Amin to the forefront. Garrigan has the hots Sarah, the doctor’s wife he works under but nothing comes off it. Some days later Amin lands up in the village and mesmerizes all and sundry. Enchanted by Amin’s bravado Garrigan has an argument with Sarah on their way back as she can’t help but recall that the same happened when Amin’s predecessor took over. A freak accident brings Garrigan face-to-face with Idi Amin as he’s the only doctor available in the area. The tension is visible on Garrigan face as he treats the General for Amin is no ordinary human being and he looks like King Kong’s cousin. Add to it Amin’s guards who don’t like even a leaf to move in front of Amin and the squeals of the animal who is hurt as result of hitting Amin’s motorcade and also the fact that Amin thinks Garrigan is British and he hates British. Garrigan looses it when the animal’s misery breaks his concentration. He snatches Amin’s gun and shoots the injured animal thus ending the pain. But Amin is now pissed at the doctor’s impudence. He is about to thrash him when he learns that Garrigan is actually Scottish and that transforms him. He is all smiles and insists on taking Garrigan t-shirt that says Scotland and in exchange gives him his uniform shirt. That’s how they meet and from thereon Amin makes him his personal physician and Garrigan is slowly sucked into the labyrinths of Idi Amin’s world. Through Garrigan eyes’ we see how Amin looses it and starts turning out to be a monster that the world made him to be. Power comes with a price and Amin believes that he can’t trust anyone. He oscillates between being strange and uncontrollable to sweet and cuddly like a huge teddy bear!

What struck me about the film was how do they think of such scripts! Jeremy Brock’s tour-de-force script based on Giles Foden’s novel makes the film a wonderful experience. Though I feel that a few scenes could have been dedicated to show the high headedness of Garrigan as e gets closer to Amin and becomes a sore sight to many of his aides as well as the British diplomats. The fact that the impish young doctor holds well inspite of being the most important man in Uganda after Idi Amin didn’t go down that well with me.

The director Kevin Macdonald’s pervious work includes Touching the Void, the breath-taking documentary based on Joe Simpson’s true account of two climbers and their perilous journey up the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. The biggest achievement of the director, in addition to guiding his actors to deliver beautifully, is the fact that he manages to confuse us at times, just like Garrigan, about the reality of Amin- like the tagline of the film suggests what is he, 'Charming. Magnetic. Murderous.' Is Amin a good guy gone wrong, is a monster or is he just another side of the people that he ousted? The documentary style camerawork by Anthony Dod Mantle (28 Days Later, Dogville) helps in deconstructing Amin very well and uses a lot of hand-held shots in addition to crazy close-ups to capture the turbulent times. The editing is crisp though the film seems a little stretchy towards the end. The build up to the climax is interesting and is very reminiscent of Ray Liotta’s frenzy in the Goodfellas but I thought that the last few minutes before the end- the hijacking of the Air France plane and romance between Amin’s trophy wife and Garrigan- could have been handled better. The portion seems drags the film and makes you shift in the seat a few times before recapturing you.

To prepare for his role Whitaker gained 50 pounds and learned to play the accordion. He read books about Amin, watched news and documentary footage, and spent time in Uganda meeting with Amin's friends, relatives, generals, and victims; he also learned Swahili and mastered Amin's East African accent. Well that did work for him; he won every conceivable award and oodles of accolades. The role had awards written all over it! You play Capote or Amin and walk the walk, talk the talk and all you hear is praise for your bravura acting and the only time that stops is when someone says, 'and the Oscar goes to...' I don't mean to take anything away from Whitaker's efforts but let’s hope that we see more of him and the award doesn’t make him another Kevin Spacey (what ever happened to him post American Beauty?)

James McAvoy’s Nicholas Garrigan is bang on. The rebellious streak is captured very well for he looks like a rock star and definitely behaves like one. Gillian Anderson plays Sarah Merrit, the doctor’s wife who hates being married to the a nice man as her husband for it makes her feel inferior. Kerry Washington portrays Amin’s third or fourth or fifth, god knows which wife, Kay Amin. In a word the film is mesmerizing and don’t miss it for it maybe one of the better film’s you’d see this year.

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