3 stars (out of four)
Every actor comes equipped with a thermostat, and the best actors can jack up the heat with the flick of a finger, or a flicker of menace around the eyes.
In the absorbing political thriller "The Last King of Scotland" it takes Forest Whitaker exactly one scene to show who's boss. The story, taken from a novel by Giles Foden, centers on a fictional Scottish protagonist, a reckless young doctor (played by James McAvoy) who arrives in Uganda in 1971 just as the country is being taken over by Gen. Idi Amin, despot of the people. James McAvoy plays Dr. Garrigan, who becomes the personal physician and advisor to Amin. Whitaker doesn't so much play the Ugandan president and charismatic monster, deposed in 1979 and responsible for an estimated 300,000 deaths, as he lights a slow fuse on a highly complex bomb.
Here's the scene in question. At a rural clinic Garrigan has taken up with the medical director's wife, played movingly by Gillian Anderson, who is particularly good whenever playing a Brit of one sort or another. Not far from the clinic Amin is involved in a minor car accident. Garrigan takes care of Amin by the side of the road and, desperate to put a badly injured cow out of its misery, he grabs Amin's pistol and fires. The president shoots the doctor a look that could kill. Thanks to Whitaker, whose actorly capacity for debauched rage turns out to be as expansive as his smile, it's a look you cannot help but believe.
Just as suddenly the menace vanishes. Amin learns the doctor is Scottish. He loves the Scottish. In a flash Uganda's leader transforms into a beaming, laughing bonfire, seducing yet another victim to get closer to the flames.
The title of the book and the film refers to Amin, who had a taste for bagpipes, outlandish cultural appropriation and sympathy for anyone who shared his feelings regarding the British Empire. "The Last King of Scotland" may be the doctor's story, for better or for worse, but it is Whitaker's movie.Much like Roger Spottiswoode's Nicaragua-set "Under Fire," the film deploys a grim political backdrop for highly charged dramatic ends. The director is Kevin Macdonald, a documentary filmmaker making his fiction film feature debut. (He won an Oscar for his Munich Olympics hostage chronicle, "One Day in September.") Shooting in Uganda with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, Macdonald offers high-contrast, deeply saturated images of a poor country dominated by rich greens and browns. The look of the film isn't fussy or overcomposed; you wouldn't mistake it for an Alan Parker or Ridley Scott picture. The pacing's brisk, and the script is light on the speechifying. It all looks and feels very '70s, not just in setting but in technique.
The story's sexual thread feels very '70s as well, with a dash of Graham Greene intrigue. Garrigan is out for danger, dallying with two very different women. One is played by Anderson; more central to the narrative, the other is one of Amin's three wives, played by the excellent Kerry Washington. This affair feels like a stretch in terms of credibility, more a function of plot than character. In general it takes an awfully long time for Garrigan, punch-drunk with newfound political influence, to wise up to the murderous rot.
Whitaker, by contrast, never misses a beat of his character's heart. His Amin is a fantastic, kaleidoscopic array of moods and emotional temperatures. Teasing Garrigan for being "very naughty," or lowering the boom with a bear hug and a chilling statement--"Uganda embraces you"--Whitaker careens from one state of mind to the next. He has displayed plenty of versatility in the past, playing everyone from Charlie Parker in "Bird" to the British soldier carrying a torch in "The Crying Game." Most actors, however, go an entire career without finding this sort of range in one unruly real-life character.
'The Last King of Scotland''
Directed by Kevin Macdonald; screenplay by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock, based on the novel by Giles Foden; cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle; edited by Justine Wright; production design by Michael Carlin; music by Alex Heffes; produced by Andrea Calderwood, Lisa Bryer and Charles Steel. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:01. MPAA rating: R (for some strong violence and gruesome images, sexual content and language).
Idi Amin - Forest Whitaker
Nicholas Garrigan - James McAvoy
Kay Amin - Kerry Washington
Stone - Simon McBurney
Sarah Merrit - Gillian AndersonCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times