Popcorn Taxi: The Last King of Scotland

“But you should have persuaded me!”

I would love to be the most trusted advisor of a mad dictator. I can imagine the trajectory that this would take, in stream of consciousness:

What a nice man! Check out these sheets! Ooh! A fast car, for me? How kind! Dear lord! Who is shooting at me?! Dear lord, why are we shooting at them?! OH GOD MY NIPPLES NOOOOOOO

… Nope. Still don’t want to go to Africa. The British are killing your tourism industry, Africa!

The Last King of Scotland is the first feature film from renowned director of such documentaries as One Day in September (about the Berlin hostage situation that inspired Munich), Roger Macdonald. For a first time director making a film in one of those countries without a film industry, having to train much of his crew on the job, he’s done pretty well for himself.

Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) decides that going into private practice with his father would be too easy. He decides to go to Uganda to have a bit of an adventure, completely oblivious to the fact that it is in the middle of a military coup. After a short while at his mission, a chance encounter with new president Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) leads to Nicholas’s appointment as personal physician to the Amin family … and the eventual realisation that Amin is not the most stable of individuals.

The Last King of Scotland begins as if it’s a fish out of water comedy, about a cocky charmer who is in Africa to have a spot of fun. Fairly quickly, it begins to pile on the horrors that most people would find practically impossible to deal with. Sarah, played briefly but effectively by Gillain Anderson, knows perfectly well that one does not get involved in African politics in the hopes of having fun. Any country where the streets are lined with automatic gun toting military is a country where you want to be careful.
Nicholas manages to counter this through wilful ignorance.
Disappearances are the result of embezzlement and freeing the country, and are in no way government silences of dissenting political voices; gunfire and explosions in the streets are the sound of victory for the government; and the constant paranoid outbursts and face grabs of the president are mere … eccentricities.
By the time Nicholas even begins to seriously contemplate that he’s in a special hell, it’s well past too late. The horrors that have been casually observed up until this point in the movie suddenly become very real to the audience; Nicholas grows his own paranoia, which is more than reasonable in a country where the president can and will kill you on a whim.

The performances of McAvoy and Whitaker are superlative. Whitaker, of course, has received many accolades for inhabiting the persona of a man who was something of a monster. Whitaker’s Amin is incredibly unstable, snapping from amiable to homicidal to jolly within the space of a minute. I have a feeling that spending an extended period of time in his presence would induce incontinence on my part. It is amazing, then, that McAvoy’s Nicholas is able to stand up to Amin and get results … while still looking vaguely like he wants to wet himself. One of the key indicators of a madman is the line “you are/were like a son to me”. By the time this is uttered, it’s too late for you: you had better stick it out and hope that the madman dies before you do. Historically, however, dictators have been proven to have unreasonably long life expectancies.

A lot of the movie is presented as if Nicholas is making his way through his increasing and increasingly inappropriate responsibilities like a waking dream. This is where Popcorn Taxi comes in handy, because you can learn more of the technical side of a film. Much of the film was shot on 16mm film, treated in a fashion that I can’t quite recall so that it would be “widescreen”. Because of the nature of 16mm and this treatment, the film ended up quite grainy, and this acts to make the film feel like the seventies. Not quite to the extent that Spielberg somehow made Munich with a seventies aesthetic, but Macdonald has other tricks.
There is a frequent excess of close-ups, and the camera is frequently “dynamic”, moving from hands opening doors to faces talking. I cannot be entirely certain whether this is a result of untrained cameramen or a conscious choice (although you wouldn’t leave camera work that you consider bad in a movie), but it certainly enhances the unstable and claustrophobic relationship shared by Amin and Nicholas.

The Last King of Scotland is not entirely true. Amin was obviously a historical figure, but there was no such person as Nicholas: he is a composite of three or four Europeans (and one Ugandan) who had ties to Amin during the seventies. The fact that the movie presents itself as historical fiction and does not suggest anything particularly untoward about Amin – like implying his cannibalism, for instance – means that there’s no need to worry, unlike some other “based on a true story” movies of the moment. The film also displays the disturbing leanings that several movies have made towards torture in recent months. I understand the necessity of such scenes, but I am still a person of a delicate constitution. It’s not until the end that The Last King of Scotland becomes tough to watch, and when questioned about these scenes Macdonald said that violence was subjective.
“What may be too much for some may be considered insufficient violence by another. It’s difficult to attain that balance. I didn’t want people leaving the cinema and telling their friends not to see it, but those scenes were necessary.”

Macdonald was right: necessary does not always have to be equal to pleasant. Through the strong performances of Forest Whitaker and James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland is made real. There can be no escape until Macdonald allows you to leave, thus enforcing the modern film director’s role as a benevolent dictator. Hold on to your nipples.

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