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Movie Review: THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND

Every time Forest Whitaker showed up on a talk show to hock his new film "The Last King of Scotland", I felt an unease in the pit of my stomach.  Every clip shown of the film throughout this ever-raging fire of awards season has been a full assault display of Whitaker in screaming pipes mode.  I came to expect that this was the only note the performance would deliver; one of excessive volume and fury-induced spittle.

As it turns out, there's a reason why Whitaker has been generating such strong Oscar buzz, and why he is an assured lock for the Best Actor award:  it's difficult to imagine a stronger, more fully developed performance in all of cinema this past year.  This isn't a one note performance -- it's nuanced, completely realized and lived-in. 

Never before has Whitaker taken such ownership of his talents as he does here.  He has always been a fascinating, curious presence in films, as though he's just been beamed down to make an appearance from another planet.  In the larger-than-life role of Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator that charmed as many people as he brutally slaughtered, Whitaker finally seems at home in his own bulky frame.  Everything he plays comes through loud, clear and truthful -- the suave leader who can rally an uprising of citizen support, the powerful intimidation that can quake fear into the souls of his opposition, and the paranoia that results from fear of betrayal.  This is more than a chameleon performance in a political film; this is Whitaker's "Richard III".

Surprisingly, the film itself matches Whitaker's intensity and vividness blow by blow.  Many times when a film is only discussed based on its powerhouse central performance, you can bet that film is a snoozer.  Not so here.  The film is shot with gorgeous, vibrant colors, fully utilizing techniques (zooms, subtly aged-looking grain), that make it feel wholly authentic to the 1970's period  in which it is set.  The colors really burst off the screen here.  The first-time director, Kevin Macdonald, establishes an immediate and tactile sense of place and his visual suggestions of Amin's duality are first-rate.

The film is not told through the eyes of Amin, however, but of a young Scottish physician named Nicholas Garrigan who comes to Uganda in the hopes of doing some good.  When he is taken under Amin's wing, an unlikely friendship slowly unfurls into nightmare.  James Mcavoy, as the physician who is actually a composite of several real-life inspirations, is extraordinarily likeable.  He is the heart and the conscience of the film (and at times, he's an uncanny dead ringer for that other appealing Scottish actor, Ewan MacGregor).

The decision to tell the story through this young man's eyes is understandable, but causes the film to squander some possiblities.  We discover Amin's dimensions as Nicholas does; therefore, when we first hear of Amin's atrocities, it occurs without precedence; we're not allowed to fully equate the Amin we've been shown to the one that exterminated over 300,000 people during his reign.  Still, this is a minute defect in a picture that does so much right.

Also surprising is a supporting cast which includes Gillian Anderson and Kerry Washington.  With so much focus on Whitaker (and deservedly so), it hasn't always been apparent within the media that there are other able actors that round out the cast.

One final note of disappointment takes me back to what Laurence Fishburne said of the decision to include the real Tina Turner in the closing images of "What's Love Got to Do With It".  Fishburn claimed that it betrayed the magical spell of Angela Bassett's performance.  I tend to agree.  It's slightly discomforting that the filmmakers decided to use  real-life footage of Amin to close this film.  It calls to the audience's mind just how much of a feat Whitaker's performance was.  But the film relies on us believing without a doubt that Whitaker is Amin.  It's calling attention to the effort behind seeming effortless. A-

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