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The Last King of Scotland

Journalist Giles Foden had what might seem like a typically sheltered upper-crust British education, attending fancy boarding schools before studying English at Cambridge, and then going on to become a writer for Media Week magazine and assistant editor for the Times Literary Supplement. But his early years were spent in Africa, where his parents relocated when he was five years old, and his father's agricultural job took young Giles to Malawi, Uganda and other rural parts of Africa. In interviews, he described his experiences as exciting and vivid, including the "frightening ones, like seeing dead bodies or towns on fire, and having our jeep searched at gunpoint by soldiers." Foden was 31 years old and working as deputy literary editor of The Guardian when his debut novel, The Last King of Scotland, was published. Foden drew upon his years as a journalist as well as his childhood memories of Africa in the 1970s to write a fictional tale that's heavily based in historical fact, about a young medical-school graduate named Nicholas Garrigan who becomes General Idi Amin's personal physician. The character was based in part, Foden said, on a British soldier named Robert "Major Bob" Astles, who served as head of Amin's "anti-corruption squad" and advised the dictator on British affairs from 1975 to 1979. The novel won numerous awards and was well-received by critics, and then was made into an equally well received 2006 film starring James McAvoy as Garrigan and Forest Whitaker as Amin.

As a young doctor just out of school, Garrigan's straight-laced Scots mother and father expect him to follow the family plan and join dad as a simple family physician. But Garrigan wants adventure, so he literally sticks his finger on a map — well, a globe — and goes to the first place he hits. He arrives in Uganda just following Idi Amin's military coup in early 1971 and sets to work at a small mission hospital with a British doctor (Adam Kotz) and his wife (Gillian Anderson). But then Garrigan has a chance encounter with Amin on a country road and, after tending to the general's  minor injury, Garrigan finds himself embraced by Amin, who adores all things Scottish. His new post as Amin's personal physician and advisor seems like great fortune at first, with the dictator giving him cars, flattering his pride, and offering him adventure beyond his fantasies. But soon the madness and corruption of Amin's regime begins to disturb Garrigan, and the more time he spends in Amin's inner circle, the more perilous his own position becomes. After making several ill-considered decisions, he finds himself dangerously over his head, and then must find a way to escape the country while he still can.

*          *          *

The Last King of Scotland, directed by documentary ace Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void) strays mightily from the novel in many respects while standing as a bristlingly smart, almost Hitchcockian thriller with a unique visual sensibility. Macdonald's camerawork and editing choices belie his background in documentaries, most notably the brilliant One Day in September, bringing an immediacy to the story that a more pedestrian Hollywood treatment would lack. The entire picture has an assured, deliberate pace, with Macdonald amping up the volume as Garrigan's situation becomes more precarious — as the film progresses the edits are faster, the camera a little jerkier, the film stock itself grainier with a harsher color palette, all contributing to a visceral tension that gnaws at the gut. McAvoy is superb, playing Garrigan as intelligent but utterly lacking in street smarts, a fellow who's charmed his way through so much of his life that it takes far too long for him to realize how high the stakes are here. The showcase performance, though, is Whitaker as Amin, a charming and sadistic child-man who's endearing one moment and terrifying the next. It takes a great actor to make a character who's completely out of his head crazy both human and frightening at the same time, and Whitaker's towering, sweaty performance won him a Best Actor Oscar for good reason.

Fox's DVD release of The Last King of Scotland offers a nice anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that's clean with excellent color and contrast — the cinematography, by Anthony Dod Mantle, is stunning, both in the scenes of lush Ugandan countryside and claustrophobic interiors. The Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio (English, with English, Spanish or French subtitles) are both terrific, mixed well with good balance between dialogue, score and effects. The audio commentary by Macdonald is mostly quite good, despite his falling into silence occasionally — some input from the film's stars, especially Whitaker, would have made it much better. Bonus features include deleted scenes (12 min.) with optional commentary; "Capturing Idi Amin" on the historical fact behind the film (29 min.); "Forest Whitaker: Idi Amin" on the background work the actor did to prepare for the role (6 min.); and "Fox Movie Channel Casting Session" with sound bites from other players (8 min.), along with the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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