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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Monster (2003)

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A torturous, depressing biography with an uncannily accurate lead performance.

What a tortured life this woman led; a life of inferiority, confusion, violence, victimisation, prostitution, anger and ultimately, murder. Charlize Theron’s utter transformation is what drives this film, her performance and physical emulation perfectly conveying the desperate pain and impetuous anger of her character. I think the Oscars are not much more than a smug festival of self-celebration, but this performance deserved commendation.

‘Monster’ is the story of Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute from Florida who murdered seven men between 1989 and 1990. One might think that the film’s title would suggest otherwise, but  the film gives a very human representation of Wuornos. She was indeed a ‘monster’ in her final years, but the film’s emphasis on the brutal, relentless path that led to her first killing shows the architecture of such a creation. But not for a second, I hasten to add, does the film condone her violence, she isn’t glorified and she isn’t vilified either, the film is so very downbeat and visceral that it would be impossible for anyone to be allured by it. ‘Monster’ is by no means the tale of one woman standing up against chauvinist pigs; her tale of nature, nurture and the consequences of violence is impartially told.

The film reflects on Wurnos’ childhood, a time of sexual favours, inadequacy, rape and beatings. A narrative gap, which misses a dubious failed marriage and numerous arrests, presents the viewer with a sorry picture, a woman who washes in petrol station toilets, a woman who is desperately trying to survive. She then meets a companion, the vulnerable Selby Moore. It’s at this point that the film strays from the facts; ‘Selby Moore’ is a fictional character, very loosely based, especially in appearance, to Tyria Moore, Wuornos’ lover until her execution.

The pair, who have moved in together, live off Wuornos’ prostitution wage until their relationship is complicated by Moore’s discovery of Wuornos’ taste for violence. The film depicts the first murder as Wuornos described it -self defence. Unlike her later stories, I think this claim has credibility; it’s quite possible that Mallory thought Wuornos was expendable social underclass, an easy thrill without consequence. I respect that the scene was orchestrated in this manner.

Monster is a stark and balanced insight into the frankly miserable life of Aileen Wuornos. You may not like her and all the violence will most likely strain your empathy, but I think you’ll leave the film having a greater understanding of the woman.

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