A string of mangled opportunities

Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin gives a fine performance against all the odds

<strong>The Last King of

The actor Forest Whitaker is a one-man beauty and the beast. His breeze-block-shaped head should be classified as a lethal weapon, but his lopsided swagger and forlorn eyes strike an oddly poetic note. Should he start raking in prizes for his portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, it ought to be in a category grander than plain old "Best Actor". What he does here is different from great acting - it is great acting against the odds.

The director Kevin Macdonald throws all manner of obstacles and impediments in Whitaker's path. Restless camera-work, jittery editing and a fever-pitch score conspire to make it look as if the actor is performing in the eye of a hurricane.

It seems incredible that no one involved in the film thought: we should keep the camera still and let him work his magic. But then the whole endeavour is a string of mangled opportunities. The story, adapted by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock from Giles Foden's fact-and-fiction novel, propels a young Scottish doctor into mid-1970s Uganda. Arriving with high-minded principles, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) soon falls under Amin's spell when he comes to the dictator's aid following a car accident.

Amin is impressed by Garrigan's efficiency, not to mention his nationality (Amin was famously enamoured of Scottish culture), and appoints him as his personal physician. The post demands diplomacy and finesse. Garrigan must relieve Amin's pain when he is writhing around complaining that he has been poisoned. Equally important is the trick of knowing how to spare his employer's embarrassment when the problem turns out to be trapped wind.

The emotionally loaded transactions between Amin and Garrigan resemble a tentative courtship dance. Amin is generous, but his gifts always have strings attached; he presents Garrigan with a new car, then demands to be chauffeured to the airport in it. The doctor gives his expertise, his devotion and even, at one point, the shirt off his back to his new boss. And he laughs along with the mockery of Amin's underlings: he is like the playground hanger-on who stays tight with the tough kid so that he won't get a thump.

But Garrigan is so dazzled by the opulence that it takes him a while to realise he has blood on his hands, and everywhere else. This slide into complicity adheres to a standard Faustian narrative that doesn't feel especially pertinent to the Ugandan situation. What the picture does well is to strip away the mythologising that has built up around Amin, reducing him and his brutality to a banal level. In the final analysis, that may even be too banal. There is a disorienting moment when a title card explains that Amin killed more than 300,000 Ugandans; viewers unfamiliar with this fact will struggle to reconcile the death toll with what the film has shown. We witness a dismemberment, shot in the picture's characteristically lurid fashion. But it is asking a lot for this murder to symbolise 300,000 deaths, and ultimately the film-makers fail to bridge the chasm between Amin's crimes, which were vast, and this particular, slender story.

Most of the problems with The Last King of Scotland can be traced back to this crisis of scale. Macdonald, making his fiction debut after the documentaries One Day in September (1999) and Touching the Void (2003), exhibits little confidence in the raw drama, choosing instead to push every scene to the brink of stylistic overkill. The cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, had a professional case of the shakes in his Dogme films, but here his manic zooms and whip-pan shots feel like another show of bad faith on the director's part. Besides, in this post-ER world, nobody still believes that a wobbly camera is synonymous with authenticity.

Even in the closing seconds, Macdonald undermines his greatest asset once more. Whitaker has dominated the screen for two hours, but it is the face of the real Idi Amin on which the film ends. Still, the actor does things here that are not easily forgotten. He has a piercing scene in which he recounts how the British army humiliated him; in a master stroke, Whitaker delivers the entire speech through a grin. Also, he looks good in a kilt. What more could you ask?

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.