Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Last King of Scotland

When Kate Winslet appeared in 'Extras', she turned in a delightfully wicked performance, but in one of her more despicably prescient observations, she conspiratorially points out to jobbing actor Ricky Gervais that the surest way to win an oscar is to "play a mental." The words of Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais, however laconic, have a real ring of truth about them. Daniel Day Lewis won an Oscar for 'My Left Foot', and Dustin Hoffman picked up the gong for 'Rainman' in performances playing disabled characters, and both of these performances garnered almost universally positive critical and audience reaction. Anthony Hopkins could arguably been seen to have played another kind of 'mental' when he picked up the plaudits, and the statuette for playing Lecter in 'the Silence of the Lambs.'

However, the military biopic has thrown up a few eccentric characters of its very own, which one could argure fall into the 'mental' genre. George C. Scott turned in a barnstorming performance in 'Patton', as the legendarily eccentric military genius, and he too won an oscar (even if he neglected to accept it). It seems even playing a despotic tyrant can garner an actor critical praise and endear him/her to a large audience. When 'Der Untergang' or 'Downfall' portrayed Adolf Hitler as a nuanced, human character for the first time ever a in German movie recently, the movie received huge critical acclaim, and picked up numerous awards at ceremonies across the world. And with good reason, for the performance of Bruno Ganz is truly excellent.

These larger-than-life characters provide a rich source of material for a capable actor, but for the actor looking to play Idi Amin, there is a pre-packaged character study of the man available in Barbet Schroeder's Idi Amin Dada, a fly-on-the-wall documentary filmed in the early 1970's. In a misguided attempt to improve his public image, Amin gave unprecedented access to the film crew, and even recorded the soundtrack to the movie on his accordion. Perhaps Amin was trying to show the world the 'real' Idi Amin but, whether the image of the man protrayed in Schroeder's film is representative of the real Amin or not, it is debatable whether this image corresponded with the picture Amin had of himself.

Head of a military dictatorship in Uganda in the 1970's, Idi Amin was responsible for the dispappearance or death of around 300,000 Ugandan people over the course of his time in power. Schroeder's documentary portrays a charismatic and intelligent, yet erratic and unpredictable man, his rule based on the creation of a climate of fear and apprehension of a larger than life leader, in possession of both tremendous power and an all-encompassing paranoia. This is the kind of character that Forest Whitaker is charged with bringing to life in The Last King of Scotland.

Forest Whitaker has been kicking around Hollywood for some time, but my first real memory of him was playing the outspoken military aide to Robin Williams in the memorable 'Good Morning Vietnam'. Although Whitaker played straight to William's funny guy, he displayed an uncanny presence opposite the manic comedian. Roles followed in a sequence of mostly forgettable movies, but Whitaker has popped up every now and again in more high profile movies, and regularly demonstrates an emotional intensity in roles such as the empath in the rather poor 'Species', and in the best movie I've seen him in, Jim Jarmusch's 'Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai'. In 'Ghost Dog', Whitaker really shone, and delivered a memorable performance, showing his chops as a leading man. However, Ghost Dog aside, Whitaker has never really got the role to allow him to play to his strengths, and appearing in possibly the worst ever large scale Hollywood production, a certain 'Battlefield Earth' didn't really help his career much.

In his portrayal of Idi Amin, however, Forest Whitaker has delivered a very powerful performance. Amin is a complex character: personable, charismatic, paranoid and dangerous in equal measures, and real range is required to effectively portray all these elements of the man in a credible way. In my book, however, he pulls it off, and Oprah Winfrey agrees, having recently recommended Whitaker as her favourite for the oscar. Now, you may scoff, but Oprah's influence over the Oscars should not be underestimated. A card-carrying and voting member of the Academy, Winfrey started her career as an actress, and recieved an oscar nomination for a supporting role in 'The Color Purple'. And, lest you forget, Oprah wields an unprecedented level of power in the american entertainment industry, her legions of acolytes regularly bending to her will. When it comes to her book club, a recommendation can mean the difference between obscurity and a best-seller for an author. In terms of movies, and the Oscars in particular, Oprah's recommendation can result in a groundswell of popular opinion, just the kind of platform to lead to more academy votes for a given movie. So fingers crossed for Forest..

However, Whitaker's enigmatic performance in the movie isn't the only element to like about 'Last King of Scotland'. James McAvoy too delivers a very sound performance as Nicholas Larrigan, the young Scottish Doctor who travels to Uganda and befriends Idi Amin, after a chance meeting under unlikely circumstances. McAvoy is the main protagonist of the movie, and befriends Amin principally because of the despot's love for Scotland, but also because the two share a similarly impulsive and outspoken personality.

This unlikely friendship leads to an invitation to become Amin's personal physician, so McAvoy moves to Kampala, and forges closer ties with the charismatic general. However, as the plot develops, Larrigan becomes less and less comfortable with the goings-on under Amin's rule, and begins to realise that he my be in over his head.

McAvoy's performance is quietly effective, for he too has a lot to work with in the movie. His cocksure naivete in the film's opening scenes gradually gives way to an increasing desperation and the young Scot handles the role very well.

The action moves along at a fair pace, and although the plot is at times a little chaotic, the ominous presence of Whitaker is never too far away, and his scenes add exactly the right amount of tension to keep the audience fairly immersed in the plot. Even when not on screen, Whitaker is referred to constantly, effectively building a larger than life image of the character that the real man obviously engendered during his despotic tenure in Uganda's seat of power.

A relatively inexperienced director, Kevin MacDonald had previously helmed the award-winning documentary 'Touching The Void'. However, though his recreation of Idi Amin's Uganda in the 1970's is an entirely different prospect, he makes a very good fist of it, and as the archive footage shown in the closing credits confirms, recreates a picture that was quite close to the reality of the time.

The dialogue is always sharp and intelligent, and allows the two leads a lot of room to demonstrate their capabilities. There are some quite violent scenes in here too, however, and one scene in particular may require sick bags to be provided in cinemas showing this, so be prepared!

So, it's a good story, with two very talented lead actors, and a particularly outstanding performance from Forest Whitaker. Despite the fact that creative liberties were taken with the story (Larrigan's character in particular) and that there are a couple of holes in the plot, notably in the final scenes, 'The Last King of Scotland' is definitely worth a look. Forest may just have inadvertently heeded Kate Winslet's advice, so let's see now if Oprah's recommendation can make a difference to his prospects of picking up the gong come Oscar night. In my book, that's where the smart money's going.

The verdict: Intense and enthralling, with powerful performances from the two leads, Whitaker in particular is excellent.
The rating: 7/10


Tommy77 said...

Jeez Paddy, you're pretty tight with the old marks out of ten, only 7?

I thought this was 9 easy!

Best film I've seen in a long time, Whitaker a shoo-in for an oscar; a riveting, brutal couple of hours that really draw you into the madness at the heart of the Amin regime.

Paddy C said...

You know you're right, I'm not the most generous, 'Casino Royale' only got a seven as well!

The characterisation of Amin, his madness, and his regime are the main strengths of this movie, but i just felt it lost its way a little bit in the last act. Still a great flick though.

In my book, a '7/10' is still good enough to go see... (note to self: 'explain rating system!')

Tommy77 said...

In fairness they do hand out ratings too easily these days.

Like the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw gave Dodgeball 5 stars out of 5.
I mean, it's funny, but it's not the PERFECT film!

Grayam said...

Cool blog pádaí. Have you seen bloody diamond?

Paddy C said...

Thanks, but as for 'Blood Diamond'.. meh.. I'm not that pushed to be honest, despite the fact that Jennifer Connelly is in it. Saw the trailer and it didn't really grab me. I could be wrong though..

Stevas said...

The performance of Forest almost overshadows the rest of the film but still very much worth a watch. Can you rate a film 7.5 out of 10 Paddy?!

As for Jennifer Connelly i would quite happily watch a film with her in it watching paint dry :)

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