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THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND – Alex Heffes

September 29, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Clark Douglas

There were several “based on true events” historical dramas in 2006 about different parts of Africa, and “The Last King of Scotland” is the best of them. It is a somewhat flawed film, but reaches remarkable heights during it’s best moments, and it lingers with you long after the credits have rolled. Nicolas Garrigan (James McAvoy) is a young Scottish man who’s just gotten his medical degree. Desperate not to become stuck in his father’s medical practice, he runs off to Uganda (of all places) and decides to work in a small medical clinic there, healing the needy and so on. The year is 1971, and Uganda is in the middle of being overthrown by an up-and-coming general named Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker).

History has treated Amin very poorly, he’s one of the well-known tyrants of recent decades, but watching “The Last King of Scotland”, it’s almost easy to forget what a monster he is going to become. Nicolas first sees Amin at a rally, and is seduced by the leader’s charisma and promises of creating a new Uganda, where people will be wealthy and free. A little later on, Amin injures his hand, and Nicolas treats it. Impressed by Garrigan’s medical skills, and by the fact that Garrigan is a Scot (“I love Scotland! If I could be anything, I would be a Scotsman!”), Amin hires Nicolas as his own personal doctor, and in no time, his “closest advisor”.

Nicolas is treated to a new car, a private apartment, women Amin hand-picks for him, and all sorts of other luxuries. He is enjoying his life, until he begins to hear disturbing reports of Amin’s personal enemies, friends, and aides disappearing without a trace. Amin laughs off the rumors, but the evidence begins to pile up, and as Nicolas grows more suspicious, Amin grows more impatient with the young doctor.

For the film’s first hour or so, it is a fascinating, funny, and chilling examination of this very volatile and deadly leader as seen through the eyes of a young man slowly beginning to break out of his hypnosis. The film’s second hour is, I am sad to report, a bit less successful, as the film seems to break away from the realm of reality and head into the world of movies. Nicolas begins a dangerous affair with one of Amin’s wives, a plot development that feels very contrived. There are still scenes of tremendous power (and startling brutality) in this portion of the film, but the feeling of being transported to another place is lost, and the awareness that we’re watching a somewhat contrived movie is enhanced.

Still, there’s plenty to recommend about “The Last King of Scotland”, first and foremost the performance of Forest Whitaker. He is tremendously charismatic and powerful as Idi Amin, presented a multi-layered performance of tremendous conviction. Whitaker is a great actor, and he’s getting a lot of recognition for this performance. It’s about time. He’s been doing tremendous work in films for years. Have you ever seen “Smoke”, “American Gun”, “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai” or “Bird”? If not, you’ve missed some tremendous pieces of acting (and some excellent movies). This is another jewel is his crown, a powerful piece of acting that may very well go down as the role he is remembered for. He creates an Idi Amin that is impossible to forget. James McAvoy (who played Mr. Tumnus in “The Chronicles of Narnia”) is quite good here, but is a less interesting character by default. Supporting work from Kerry Washington and Gillian Anderson is also solid.

The music is pretty evenly divided between regional folk songs and a score by Alex Heffes. As in “Blood Diamond” and “Catch a Fire”, the songs are quite effective in helping establish a regional atmosphere, and one moment in particular is very funny, with an African choir singing “The Bonnie Banks O’ Loch Lomond” as Amin dances around in a kilt. The score is drastically different from the source cues, containing little to no African influences, taking more of a traditional drama/thriller approach. Heffes provides some pretty gritty, sometimes dissonant stuff, and his work is given the spotlight in the film’s final act. There’s a couple of thriller cues (leaning heavy on percussion) that are particularly impressive. The soundtrack on Rounder records features 20+ minutes of score and a wide array of songs from the film.

“The Last King of Scotland” is a great disappointment in some ways, not because it’s a bad film… on the contrary, it’s a very good film… but it could have been a great film, had the filmmakers not felt the need to sensationalize things. I mean, sensationalizing Idi Amin’s story is a bit like putting sugar on ice cream, you know? The story is sensational and dramatic enough on it’s own, the phony dramatic ornaments only distract from the film’s power. Nonetheless, I highly recommend the movie, there’s more than enough good that outweighs the bad. A flawed film with remarkable moments and a perfect performance.

Rating: ***½

Track Listing:

  • Toko Momo (performed by Wandel) (7:43)
  • Nakawunde (performed by Percussion Discussion Africa) (3:01)
  • Idi’s Story (1:51)
  • Afro Disco Beat (performed by Tony Allen) (5:31)
  • Save Me E. T. (performed by Mensah & The Tempos Band) (3:24)
  • Grazing in the Grass (performed by Hugh Masekela) (2:47)
  • Ambush (2:24)
  • Me and Bobby McGee (performed by Angela Kalule) (4:07)
  • Kasongo (performed by Afrigo Band) (4:09)
  • Fever (performed by Jingo) (6:42)
  • The Bonnie Banks O’ Loch Lomond (performed by Nyzonza Singers) (1:22)
  • Bukom Mashie Mashie (performed by Oscar Sulley and the Uhuru Dance Band) (5:07)
  • Press Conference (3:51)
  • Love Is You (performed by Ofo The Black Company) (3:05)
  • Getting the Evil of Nicolas (5:40)
  • On the Runway (5:25)
  • Fown Over Lake Victoria (1:34)
  • Acholi Pot Song (performed by Ndere Dance Troupe) (3:51)
  • Voice of the Forgotten (performed by Kawesa) (3:25)

Running Time: 72 minutes 12 seconds

Rounder/Universal Music Group 619071 (2006)

Music composed by Alex Heffes. Orchestrations by Julian Kershaw. Recorded and mixed by Andy Richards. Score produced by Alex Heffes.

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