The Last King of Scotland (2006)

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This image may summarise the film’s implausibility.

Although it features a superb transformation from Forest Whitaker and a series of well-constructed scenes,  the largely fictional narrative that surrounds them is ultimately rather formulaic and implausible.

‘The Last King of Scotland’ is all about Forrest Whitaker; as soon as he graces the screen, he is Idi Amin. The unison of Whitaker’s physicality and his superb East African accent, which is perhaps the most impressive element of his performance, transforms him into the Ugandan dictator.

Although it is clear that Amin is a manipulator and intent on getting his own way, he is loquacious, magnetic and, surprisingly, quite affable. He charms both the viewer and Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), the impressionable Scottish doctor who initially believes Amin’s rousing yet hollow speeches.

It soon becomes apparent however that this is a charm offensive, a manipulative process that wears very thin once Amin’s deeply ugly, frenetic megalomania is laid bare. Like many of history’s dictators – Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot – Amin succumbs to paranoia, and mass violence ensues.

The film begins with the proclamation that ‘This film is inspired by real people and real events.’, however it fails to state that the central character Nicholas Garrigan is actually entirely fictional. I hadn’t looked into the film’s veracity before watching it, however although there appeared to be clear narrative exaggerations at times, I had presumed that Garrigan was at least a real person. It is a typical example of the ‘inspired by real events’ cliché, ‘inspired’ is always the key part of the sentence.

The film follows Garrigan as he inadvertently becomes Amin’s personal physician and at times ‘closest advisor’; it is indeed an extraordinary predicament, but I suppose stranger things have happened. McAvoy is good as Garrigan, his gradually souring relationship with Amin is interesting and intense, they have many great exchanges.

However, with the knowledge that Nicholas Garrigan is an invention of Giles Foden, author of the book on which the film is based, Scotland’s narrative seems rather formulaic and implausible. I found Garrigan’s relationships with medic Sarah Merrit (Gillian Anderson) and Kay Amin (Kerry Washington) to be hackneyed plot mechanisms.

While the film includes real events such as the Israeli hostage crisis at Entebbe International Airport, much of what occurs is either historically unfaithful or sheer fiction. The story was inspired by one of Amin’s many self-bestowed titles – The King of Scotland.

An example of the film’s implausibility is the scene where Garrigan and Amin first meet. Amin’s Citroen DS has been in a collision with a cow (what appears to be an Ankole-Watusi), leaving him with an injured hand that Garrigan tends to. The creature appears to be fatally wounded and wails in a pain until Garrigan, who has repeatedly asked for it to be put out of its misery, takes Amin’s gun from the roof of the car and mercifully shoots it twice in the head.

Although the surrounding guards train their guns on Garrigan, predictably Amin respects his audacity, and, amusingly, is particularly pleased when he finds out he is Scottish. It is a scene that is quite bereft of credibility.

Although the film has elements of character study, my main problem with the film is that it doesn’t give an insight into Amin’s rule and the atrocities committed under it. Although he is clearly a despot, a mentally ill bully, the film’s emphasis on his fictional relationship with Garrigan rather than fact meant that I didn’t find him hateful.

‘The Last King of Scotland’ features a superb transformation from Forest Whitaker and a series of well-constructed scenes, however ultimately the largely fictional narrative that surrounds Whitaker is rather formulaic.

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Scum (1979)

ScumA damning depiction of rehabilitation, hierarchy and corruption.  

Despite being released over 30 years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Scum has lost none of its punch. ‘Scum’ is an unforgiving portrait of the British borstal system – 1 hour and 30 minutes of both physical and psychological abuse.

The film examines the hierarchy of the borstal, looking at the behaviour and roles of both the officers and the inmates, questioning who’s worse. This hierarchy is ruptured when Carlin (Ray Winstone) enters the borstal. Carlin claims to be looking for ‘no trouble’, but really he is equally or even more pugnacious and skullduggerous than the rest.

Much like ‘Cool Hand Luke’ and ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’, ‘Scum’ explores the infuriating frustration of injustice in ‘correctional’ institutions. Personally, I find few things worse than the abuse of power, whether it’s within an institution, a family or any other context. I’m sure many would agree, subsequently making ‘Scum’ an engrossing and unpleasant watch for all.

Asides from Carlin, the most significant character is Archer (Mick Ford), an intelligent, disaffected vegan who is a habitual troublemaker. Archer serves as an interesting plot device; he offers intelligent, biting monologues on the flaws of the institution, most notably to an officer’s face, who retaliates by reducing their civil conversation into another officious, hostile procedure.

It’s Carlin’s arrival, growth and ultimately tenure as ‘The Daddy’ that serves as the central narrative of the film, but thematically the film acts as a condemnation of the borstal system and its corrupt, vindictive employees. One may wonder if the film is hyperbolic, but the borstal system was abolished by government in 1982, replacing it instead with ‘Youth Custody Centres’. This corroborates Scum’s credibility.

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