The Last King of Scotland (Fox Searchlight, R)

While it is no shock as to what eventually unfolds in the film, it is nonetheless a gut-wrenching and unnerving film to sit through in that the performances are all first rate.

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Monsters really do exist.

Not the kind that were staples of Saturday afternoon matinees. No, the monsters of the real world are far more terrifying than werewolves, mummies and vampires.

They're the kind that have an outward appearance of being a regular person: friendly, gregarious, concerned for others. But it's a thin layer barely camouflaging the real beast within.

The twentieth century was filled with such creatures: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and in the case of The Last King of Scotland, Idi Amin.

Portrayed with extraordinary range and depth by Forrest Whitaker in what should be an Academy Award-nominated performance (but may not be due to the character and possible lack of audience for so brutal a film), Idi Amin and his rise to power in 1970s Uganda is the story of The Last King of Scotland. The rise as man of the people to murderous despot is seen through the eyes of a young Scottish doctor, played by James McAvoy, who, like much of the country, falls under Amin's spell, only to slowly realize the horror of what is happening under the regime.

While it is no shock as to what eventually unfolds in the film considering all the world knows of the genocide under Amin's rule, it is nonetheless a gut-wrenching and unnerving film to sit through in that the performances are all first rate. Knowing ahead of time of what will eventually come clear to the young doctor makes the movie that much more emotional, just waiting for the other shoe to drop and for the doctor to realize his own responsibility in the events. It is in that tension that the film has its greatest strength.

That strength can also be found in the technical aspects of the film. Director Kevin Macdonald paces the film beautifully. There are only hints of Amin's potential for violence and paranoia through much of the first half, just a taste of what is lurking just below the surface. Those teases are interspersed through scenes of Amin's public persona of a caring, charming, and seemingly benevolent leader who has the welfare of the people as his foremost goal.

But as the film moves into its second half and the true character emerges, the film moves from a casual pace to a frenetic one. The fear becomes palpable, and perhaps all the moreso because the viewer is not inundated with scenes of murder and torture, but just given quick glimpses of it. It is a true example of "less is more."

The cinematography also aids immensely to the structure of the film, with some absolutely beautiful scenes of the Ugandan countryside and wide shots of the vast crowds who in the early going come to cheer Amin as a savior of the people. These sort of vistas are slowly replaced by much more claustrophobic shots, many done hand held to give an even more unsettling tone to the subject matter.

Truthfully, the only problem I can see with The Last King of Scotland is whether the subject matter will find a wide enough audience. But considering how often the world has turned a blind eye towards the actual suffering of people in countries like Uganda, Rwanda, and Sudan, one cannot help but wonder if that same attitude will not extend to films about those sufferings, as well.

{mos_ri:The Last King of Scotland}

 

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