Video Vault: The Last King of Scotland

The Last King of Scotland
Rated R – 123 minutes
Vault Rating: 7.5

It is the spring and the march of Oscar winners from theater to home theater proceeds on a pace with today’s fine feature, “The Last King of Scotland.” If there was ever a role tailor made for the hulking, googly-eyed Forest Whitaker, portraying the ruthless Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin, is surely it.

Best Actor didn’t come cheap this year because some titans did some fine work. Ryan Gosling (OK, he hardly qualifies as a titan, but give him time.) was tremendous as a dedicated, addicted, inner-city teacher in a picture that maybe should have been nominated for Best Picture, “Half Nelson.” Darker than “Little Miss Sunshine,” which got by on its good humor, “Half Nelson,” also on new release racks right now, is a must-see.

And while we’re musing on Best Actor performances, it escapes my imagination why Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for good work in “Blood Diamond” (Also on the new release racks now.) instead of for his star performance opposite Jack Nicholson in “The Departed.” Don’t get me started as to why Nicholson wasn’t nominated for his role as “The Departed’s” malevolent crime kingpin.

So, back on point, The Academy really made the playing field easier for Whitaker, but it says here it wouldn’t have made a difference if they hadn’t. Whitaker would have won over Nicholson and DiCaprio anyway.

Our story is set in the 1970s, when Amin took power, and unfolds from the perspective of a young Scottish doctor (James McAvoy as Dr. Nicholas Garrigan) who chooses to work in Uganda rather than follow in his father’s well-heeled footsteps back home.

Garrigan introduces us to the humanitarian plight in rural Uganda, where doctors are few (Two, to be exact) and the need for doctors is overwhelming. But Garrigan, who is a bit of an adventurer, comes in contact with Amin after a car accident. Shortly after, such is the mania of the dictator, he offers Garrigan a top government post in charge of the entire country’s health care system.

Thus begins the film’s descent into Amin’s paranoia. At first blush, Uganda is a lush place, wonderful in its color and culture, but the more we know, the more we begin to blanch. By films end, all is chaos and the land has become deadly dangerous. A particularly gripping torture sequence uses meat hooks and killings become a fact of random happenstance.

Director Kevin Macdonald thus supposes that the inner workings of a mad leader’s mind have been exported into reality. And this reflection in his film is compelling and terrifying.

And this, friends, is where Forest Whitaker comes in. He is burly and large, immense and a little scary in his good humors and utterly dangerous in his sharp turns into anger. It is, indeed, Forest Whitaker’s show.

There are interracial elements that are interesting in the plot level, in that Garrigan takes a black lover, as well as in a more subtle thematic level, where I believe the director wants us to think about things like the white man’s burden and colonialism.

Everything works well in this picture. When two hours plus rolls by and you haven’t looked up once or even noticed the time flying by, you know you’ve got a good picture on your hands. “The Last King of Scotland” draws you in, thrills you and shakes you around a bit, and then lets you go. Do check it out.

Hey! You’re welcome. And so are your comments. Join the Video Vault by sending your comments to us at and we’ll print your opinions here in the regular Vault Mail columns. And until I finally get to see “Dreamgirls” — Yes, I have a copy in my possession even as I write you. — Enjoy!

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