THE LAST KING OF SCOTLANDR
One doesn't expect a historical drama set in 1970s central Africa to have topless dancers, a machine-gunning car chase with a Mercedes-Benz, or a Holiday Inn lounge singer…doing "Me and Bobby McGee," no less. All these things and more fit seamlessly into this U.K. adaptation of Giles Foden's acclaimed and award-winning 1998 novel about a Scottish doctor in the inner circle of Ugandan madman Idi Amin—saying volumes about the well-wrought world and you-are-there verisimilitude of this gripping film.
Shot on location in Uganda by Oscar-winning documentarian Kevin Macdonald (1999's One Day in September), The Last King of Scotland finds fictional protagonist Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) aching to start his new career with a bit of adventure. Signing on to assist a doctor in a rural African village, he inoculates children and plays soccer with the likable villagers. Africa is all a lark, and Nicholas flirts with the physician's health-aide wife (Gillian Anderson) seemingly as much for a great pub yarn back home as for anything else.
It all remains a mildly patronizing Africa adventure for him, even when new president General Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) comes touring through the village shortly after his 1971 coup deposing Milton Obote. The doctor is called to help Amin following a minor car accident outside town, and Nicholas' naive bravado impresses the president. So does the fact that the doctor's from Scotland—Amin's favorite country outside Uganda, following his service with the King's African Rifles (KAR) of the British colonial army. (The title refers to Amin's joking declaration of himself.) The backstory breezes through with admirable efficiency, telling accurately and in pieces what you need to know, without ever bogging down.
Well, what Idi Amin wants, Idi Amin gets, and Whitaker captures the friendly and flattering, great-salesman charm that effortlessly explains how Amin rose through the ranks. Nicholas stays on in capital city Kampala, sipping tea in fine china and talking down at British diplomats like the ever-smiling Stone (Simon McBurney), who you know is going to give this Scottish snot just enough rope. By the time Nicholas' denials no longer ring true even to himself, he's dangling by those ropes—with hooks through him. The story winds up at Entebbe on June 27, 1976, when a hijacked Air France Airbus was allowed to land into history.
Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle captures the time as well as the place, with a just slightly grainy enough look that evokes that decade's news films. The four highly diverse leads are uniformly excellent, with the talented Anderson again transcending her longtime TV persona as “X-Files” agent Dana Scully, and Kerry Washington, as one of Amin's wives, likewise impeccably tackling accent and era. Plus, you have got to hear that incredibly beautiful Africa chorus singing "Loch Lomond." Take the high road or low road, but just find your way to the theatre.