White Man, stay out of Africa. That was the main theme of a trio of Oscar-friendly releases that opened within weeks of each other last fall. "The Last King of Scotland" may not have had the star power of "Blood Diamond" or the widespread adulation of "Babel," but thanks to Forest Whitaker's Oscar-winning performance, it may be the best film of the bunch.
Based on the fiction novel by Giles Foden, "The Last King of Scotland" tells the story of Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a young doctor who comes to Ugandan hoping to do charity work, but ends up becoming personal physician (and key advisor) to General Idi Amin in the midst of his bloody and nationalistic reign.
Although Whitaker won the best actor Oscar, Amin is clearly a supporting character in this drama and Garrigan's story arc -- from fascination to devotion to eventual horror -- is ultimately a bit too familiar (a fine undergraduate essay could be written comparing McAvoy's character here to his more popular turn as Mr. Tumnus from the "Chronicles of Narnia" film). Director Kevin Macdonald also ironically loses focus when the film hones its attentions on Garrigan. The first hour, which develops a raw documentary style in its use of the Uganda settings, has an authenticity that the second half lacks.
"The Last King of Scotland" arrives on DVD on Tuesday (April 17) with a well-stocked package of extras that manage to enrich the film without overwhelming viewers.
Primarily, the DVD includes a fine transfer of the film, though Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography becomes a bit muddled on smaller TVs. Fortunately, Whitaker's performance -- an uncanny vocal and physical impersonation, but also internalized danger from this fine actor -- is big enough that it would even pop on an iPod.
Macdonald, who makes a mostly successful transition from documentary to narrative here, supplies an informative commentary full of information about shooting in Uganda and suitable amazement at Whitaker's transformation. He also delves into the film's complex tonal shifts between early comedy and the extreme violence and terror of the conclusion, a balance that was also central to the seven deleted or alternate scenes. The best of the cut segments is a different opening that shows young Idi as a champion boxer, removed because it pushed the focus onto the General and also because the younger actor looks nothing like Whitaker.
The best of the other features is the 29-minute documentary "Capturing Idi Amin," which includes interviews with members of Amin's cabinet, as well as the Ugandan extras. The discussion of fictionalizing historical events and personalities is often fascinating and sheds light on the film's conflicted approach to Amin, who comes off as both a savior and a monster.
Rounding out the package are a six-minute featurette on Whitaker and "Casting Session- The Last King of Scotland," a Fox Movie Channel production.