How the Academy dearly loves its royalty. Perhaps this is because in America, we have no true history with our very own monarchy, what with our liberation two hundred odd years ago. Yes, little American girls still dream of becoming princesses, boys want to be Prince Charming, and Hollywood loves to recognize the men and women who play those parts.
After all, Yul Brynner was named Best Actor for playing the King of Siam in The King and I, and Nigel Hawthorne was given a nod for The Madness of King George. Audrey Hepburn took a walk to the podium for playing Princess Anne in Roman Holiday, Dame Judi Dench was nominated for playing Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown and took home a Best Supporting statue playing Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, and Helen Mirren looks to earn a Best Actress nomination this year for playing the latest Elizabeth in The Queen. All this history has set the stage for Forest Whitaker, who is almost guaranteed recognition for his part as both figurehead and head of state.
Of course, Idi Amin, who ruled the African nation of Uganda with an iron fist during the 70s, was never royalty in the traditional sense, though his fascination with the Scottish isles led him to declare himself ruler of those lands and fosters his relationship with Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a Scottish doctor who traveled to the African nation in 1970 in search of adventure and experience, eventually becoming the personal physician and close advisor to the notorious dictator.
Kevin Macdonald’s new film, The Last King of Scotland, based upon the novel by Giles Foden, is historical fiction, tracking the high and low points of Amin’s reign, and insinuating Garrigan (a fictional character) into the thick of it. McAvoy (something of an inexpensive Ewan McGregor, best known for playing Mr. Tumnus in The Chronicles of Narnia) is engaging and funny, an impressionable party boy seduced—along with the rest of the nation—by the power and charisma of Amin, though by the end of the film he is forced to examine his own part in a brutal regime that killed over 300,000 Ugandans. His performance is solid, but this movie is all Forest Whitaker, a superb actor who embodies Amin—all magnificent charm and sizzling menace.
You can’t make a movie about Idi Amin without dealing with the Entebbe hijacking incident, the watershed moment for both the country and its leader; The Last King of Scotland wisely closes there. But it also takes Amin to task for expelling all Asians out of Uganda in 1972, an act that isn’t as well remembered but is generally considered his most villainous political act.
Yes, the picture has some standard political thriller clichés, and the relationship between Garrigan and Amin’s wife (Kerry Washington) is far too foreshadowed (note to hero: never sleep with despot’s wife, even if he has more than one). But all is forgiven whenever Whitaker, buoyed by his physical stature and his willingness to put his entire self into the role, is onscreen, his terrifying unpredictability dominating everyone and everything around him. Truly, the question is not whether or not he’ll be nominated for an Oscar, but whether he’ll be nominated as Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor. Either way, his is a performance fit for a king.
THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND ( * * * ½ )
Directed by Kevin Macdonald.• Starring Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington and Gillian Anderson. • R, 121 min. • At the Century Cinemas Del Monte Center