LKoS Review in Men's Vogue Magazine
Posted at 5:27 PM (PDT) on Wednesday, August 23, 2006

hearts of darkness
Forest Whitaker brings Idi Amin back to life

By Ned Martel
Men's Vogue

The world, it seems, has always had too few men ready to abandon PowerPoint and power ties for unknown places where they might save lives. Based on Giles Foden's novel of the same title, The Last King of Scotland explores the missionary impulse that catapults a Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan (played by the puckish James McAvoy), into the impoverished villages of Uganda during the 1970s reign of the infamous General Idi Amin, who is resurrected in Forest Whitaker's thunderous performance. After a chance encounter, the despot cottons to Garrigan, offering him the chance to help even more, as the country's de facto health minister—as long as he will tend to Amin's health. The doctor tries to reform the general, but ends up infected by the moral corruption; a free Mercedes convertible awakens an appetite for power he didn't know he had—and that won't stop growing. (His one voice of reason, Gillian Anderson, comes but then goes, and too soon.)

The film is an exceptional re-creation of what was once Africa's bloodiest kingdom. (All the genocide since then makes Amin's seem comparatively peaceable.) Kevin Macdonald won an Oscar for his Munich Olympics documentary, One Day in September, and then scaled slippery heights in the docudrama Touching the Void. Here he does something closely aligned with Fernando Meirelles's The Constant Gardener, with its blurry, painterly sweep of Africa, and its intrigue among imperialists grasping for pharmaceutical profits. But Macdonald spends more time probing various inner sancta—the hotel pools and modernist embassies where Western expats schmooze, Amin's taxidermy-strewn bedroom, and, above all, the dark heart of that impetuous, imperious warlord, who died in exile in 2003.

Amin's taste for pageantry, ingrained by the Scottish officers who instructed him as a child, is matched only by his appetite for savagery, and Macdonald's depiction of extreme brutality—the regime tortures suspected traitors and makes dissidents disappear—almost becomes too much. But Whitaker dominates, imposing order and thoroughly creeping everyone out—even Amin's wives freeze in fear. Whitaker's role is more regal than his turns in Panic Room, The Crying Game, or, lately, on the actors' cable showcase, The Shield. When necessary, Whitaker's errant eye signals shiftiness, and his huge smile collapses into a harrowing frown, and along the way, he issues his own imposing reminder to the world: Here is one of the most agile, vital actors appearing on any screen. Ultimately, Macdonald's updated take on Aesop's Androcles, who tamed the angry lion, suggests that some beasts can never be befriended.

This film is not yet rated.