A solid dramatic thriller in its own right, 'Last King' is lifted into higher territory by superb performances, intriguing subject matter, impressive direction and superb production values to help make it one of the year's better films. Whilst just shy of awards calibre recognition as a film overall due to some minor narrative fumbles, its smaller elements, particularly Forest Whitaker's pitch perfect portrayal of Idi Amin, will no doubt get a lot of deserved recognition come Oscar time.
The film's main conceit is that its central character, a hopelessly naive young Scottish doctor, is a fictional construct. No such man existed, rather he's an amalgamation of various real life people in Amin's life in order to give us a point of entry and someone to empathise with along the way in this dark tale. Sadly yes it's yet another story of Africa seen through the eyes of a white male foreigner, though it actually somewhat suits the story. After all Garrigan's brutal wake-up call about the world stands as a good metaphor for the failure of British colonialism in general.
Still, the character is the weak link of the film, a somewhat self-involved cocky young man who considering he is a doctor should have had far more smarts than he displays here. You can understand his enthusiasm and general lust for life, but just when you think he's developed some wisdom he'll do something utterly stupid - at times fitting the character's nature, but at others servicing the plot.
Most notably when Garrigan suddenly comes to realise his guilty naivete, the film throws in some overdone John LeCarre elements about adultery and attempted assassination to ratchet up the last act's level of suspence a good couple of notches. It feels somewhat cliche and cheap at first, but for the most part earns a lot of our respect back as it proves to be necessary for two of the film's most chilling and powerful scenes which show the price that comes with dancing with the devil.
Those problems are otherwise the only weak links in what is essentially a great film that thankfully avoids the whole cliched "white man's burden" style story of other African-set movies. Scribes Jeremy Brock and Peter Morgan delightfully indulge in their characters, showing of the various rich sides to not just the main but supporting players as well, and never let the film fall back on simple solutions or pompous moralising. It's actually refreshing to see writers credit their audience with some intelligence and allowing them to make up their own minds on the issues raised.
Kudos also to the production team for delivering such a splendid setting. Thanks to on-location shooting in Uganda, there's not only a sense of realism to all the film's scenes but a vibrancy as well. Not the bleak wasteland of "The Constant Gardener" or "Out of Africa", in 'King' Uganda shines with life and colour. Kampala in the early scenes is a bustling playground of energy and civilisation and the film isn't afraid to indulge in showing the benefits and costs of the encroachment of western civilisation on Africa. Even as the film descends into darker territory and the true nature of Amin's legacy is revealed, the filmmakers never lose their love for the place even as they portray some of its darker sides.
The pale yet ethereally beautiful McAvoy, a very talented young actor who's proven himself in various international productions over the years (check out the brilliant "State of Play" BBC mini-series if you can), is a solid lead. Stuck with an unsympathetic lead character around which most of the film's screen time revolves, he manages to effectively pull off Garrigan's exuberance, naive idealism, youthful arrogance, stubborn denial, quiet desperation, and eventual humility yet still remain a sympathetic man whom we root for by the end. The camera also obviously loves him too with the film surprisingly often finding ways to have him displaying his genitals, ass, bare torso, or speedo-clad body whenever possible.
Strong work too in the supporting roles by Kerry Washington and Gillian Anderson who shine with their few scenes as Amin's second wife and the wife of Garrigan's first field assignment head. Anderson's scenes aren't exactly necessary to the plot but they do bring up an interesting and credible subplot which enriches the film's texture. Washington's scenes are essential though and she handles them with strength and grace, never over doing it but still dominating the screen with a strong presence. Simon McBurney also impresses as a somewhat slimy British intelligence officer serving his own ends.
'King' however is Whitaker's film and the man delivers a career-best performance. A true revelation, he shows us all sides of Amin from the seductive freedom fighter whose charm could seduce an entire nation, to the paranoid megalomaniac that butchered all those around him.
Whitaker attacks his scenes with gusto, never overdoing it and never portraying Amin as a simple butcher, but rather a far more complex personality. His scenes veer between a charismatic and very sociable clown to a deeply disturbed man racked by his own demons of resentment, insecurity and seething with a petulant animalistic rage. At times you laugh along with his warm wit, whilst the very next scene he chills your heart with his monstrosity - and for not even one moment does Whitaker ever falter in his portrayal.
The basic Faustian tale is the central heart of the story, but Director Kevin Macdonald never allows it to be painted in such simple terms, rather going at great lengths to shows us how in the beginning Amin brought hope to an impoverished nation, how people on individual and larger levels can be seduced by not just wealth and power but the promise of greater things. How sometimes one can be caught up in a belief so much that it's only too late we realise what's been really happening and can't get out of that situation unscathed if at all.
The film plays fast and loose with the facts, sometimes to good effect and sometimes not which makes the film plausible, but not entirely credible at times. It always stays true to its dark heart and never betrays it characters, even as it stumbles over some standard movie conveniences and awkward attempts to fit film scenes into real life events towards the end such as the PLO's hijacking of Air France Flight 139 in 1976. Tightly paced, lusciously shot, superb performances and solid characterisation. There's much to admire about 'Last King' and if it weren't for those nagging narrative problems ranging from a not so compelling lead character to its last minute thriller conveniences, this would've been true modern classic territory. As is though, this is what great art house filmmaking is all about.