Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Last King of Scotland (Review)

Be it a product of increased a-lister awareness, or the current vogue for exotic celebrity adoptions, Africa, that cradle and, more recently, scourge of civilization, is lately quite alive on America's movie screens. If I were in a more ambitious mood, I might style this as a survey of several recent films (most notably, The Constant Gardener, and Blood Diamond) that aimed to tackle the notoriously layered, complicated conflicts of the dark continent. In brief I will say that both of those films are principally concerned with the white, EuroAmerican experience of Africa, a mistake also made (though in smaller measure) in this film. Why the perspective of a foreigner is required to examine the person, and reign of Idi Amin, military dictator of Uganda between 1971-1979, is beyond me. I would have much preferred a character study uncolored by the lens of the outsider, but perhaps this will require an African director.
In the interest of full disclosure: this past January I visited Africa for a time of three weeks and fell deeply for its various charms, and thus today find myself highly susceptible to the nostalgic power of its images. I am just flat out predisposed to like, or rather to revel in, all things Africa. I could hardly wait to get an eyefull of this films generous, panoramic cinematography, as it lovingly dotes on the sights and colors I so fervently wish to return to. There are, however, times when the cinematography, rife as it is with those cliched visions of Africa-- its rust red roads dotted with sunset backed acacia trees, its inky, smiling-and-running natives-- becomes, I'm afraid, something more base: a pretty, superficial backdrop. Or worse, just another piece of a glossy pamphlet showcasing Forest Whitaker's performance. A performance, it needs to be said, that is the best performance you are likely to encounter this year, and indeed for many years to come. I liked Leo in the Departed. Hell, we all liked Leo in The Departed, but if Forrest doesn't hoist that golden statuette come Oscar time, I will be outraged. It will be the biggest, most shameful misapplication of the Best Actor award since Denzel Washington was, in 1992, robbed outright for his portrayal of, you guessed it, another complex, terrifying, charismatic black man: Malcolm X. For this is the sort of acting that exalts the profession, while also reducing, comparitively, the work of its many lesser practitioners to, as the saying goes, childs play. The glistening, haunting, alternatingly rage and charm filled face of Whitaker's Idi Amin stayed with me deep into the night. But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself here.
"The Lost King of Scotland" is ostensibly about Nicholas Garagan, a young Scottish doctor, freshly minted, who has come to Uganda with the usual naivete of twentysomething western idealists. He hopes to make Africa a better place, to have some adventure, and, rather less flatteringly, to get laid at every opportunity. With a few tweaks, he might have been a more sympathetic protagonist. As presently consitituted he is an unlikable, bungling, ethically reckless lad, who, amongst other head-slapping decisions, thinks it might be okay to sleep with Amin's youngest and most shapely wife. The friend with whom I saw "Last King" and I had a spirited discussion following the film over the astonishing implausibility of many of Nicholas' decisions: I mean, really, bang the wife of a murderous dictator? Just for kicks? Really? As is evident in the trailer, Nicholas falls in to a quick and easy friendship with Whitaker's Idi Amin, and becomes an advisor of sorts, a courtier at times, and, officially, his personal physician. As such he is witness to Amin's enormous force of personality and, increasingly as the film progresses, the murderous evil of his regime.
I will not go much further into the plot of the film in this space, so as not to spoil it, and also because, as I said before, the story here is Forrest Whitaker's Idi Amin. Rarely has a film character held such sway over his audience. Whitaker's presence on screen, is so magnetic, his scenes so terrifying and yet so greedily hoped-for, that I took to scheduling a trip to the theater restroom around what I thought would be a brief stretch in which he wouldn't appear. In a way our captivation at the hands of this most murderous of tyrants is analogous to the Ugandan people's. There's a scene early on in the film where Whitaker, as Amin, is addressing a large rally in the countryside, in an improvised venue among a vivid green field, his sermon on the mount, so to speak. He orates, like that other African king, the lion, in a bellowing, raspy roar "I may wear the clothes of a general, but underneath this uniform I am a simple man, like you". He is so convincing, so charged with energy and populist charisma, that it became elementary, in an instant, to see why Ugandans originally found him so compelling. This is a man you could fall for. Understand also that this is the mark of great acting: it illuminates. As the film goes on and Amin becomes progressively paranoid, and brutal, we never fully abandon him as a sympathetic character. We are stilll taken in by his lightning-fast switches between moods of screaming, sadistic fury, and gentle, self-deprecating wit. We, like the foreign press of the time, charmed to pieces, and indeed to sloppy, softball journalism, by Amin, make excuses for him. Indeed to the very last scenes, which play out in accelerated fashion the conclusion of his regime, we even hold out for his redemption. We tell ourselves that very worst of complicit, appeasing lies: this is Africa, land of the savages, who else but a strongman can run it? I submit to you that it takes a great actor to show the depth, and, more importantly, the biting falsity, of that ancient colonial assumption. I found myself, in the film's aftermath, wondering whether the movie around Whitaker's performance was just a shell, a bare housing, or whether the sheer intensity of his work just made it seem that way. In either case: Hats off, Forrest. See you at the podium.

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