The Last King of Scotland (Blu-ray)
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Studio: Twentieth Century-Fox
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 123 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English; Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish, Portuguese, others
Subtitles: SDH, Spanish, French, others
MSRP: $ 29.99
Release Date: February 2, 2010
Review Date: February 4, 2010
A fictional thriller plotted through the historical backdrop of the legendarily brutal régime of Uganda’s Idi Amin makes for compelling viewing in Kevin Macdonald’s The Last King of Scotland. With the sights and sounds of the period captured in deliriously accurate fashion, this excellent drama pulls its noose tight around one’s neck as it plays at squeezing every ounce tension-filled dread from the viewer as an idyllic world comes crashing down around our protagonist. Award-winning documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald’s first foray into narrative filmmaking is an unqualified success.
After earning his medical degree and hastily fleeing from a stifling partnership with his father, Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) volunteers to take part in a Ugandan medical mission but once there becomes irreversibly entangled with one of the world’s most barbaric figures: Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker). Impressed by Dr. Garrigan’s take charge attitude in his presence, the newly self-appointed Ugandan President picks him as his personal physician and later as his most trusted confidante. Though Garrigan is at first flattered and fascinated by his new position and basks in the luxurious paradise he’s now a part of, he soon awakens to Amin’s savagery and to his own complicity in it. As Garrigan tries to right his wrongs and escape Uganda alive, Amin and his other advisors suspect something’s afoot and keep a closer watch on his activities.
The film’s attention to detail and the brazen recreation of the period in Uganda directly after Idi Amin seized power in 1971 adds such an atmosphere of verisimilitude to the story that one would swear Dr. Garrigan was a real person who actually had this bone-chilling experience. The screenplay by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock based on the novel by Giles Foden doesn’t flinch from the horrors of the story, but director Kevin Macdonald doesn’t dwell on them either thus keeping the involvement in the tale strong without the audience’s need to keep it at arm’s length. His pacing is so propulsive, in fact, that the last quarter hour is almost unbearable, twisting and turning the narrative (part real, part fiction even in dealing with one of Amin’s wives) to serve the purposes of thriller filmmaking. The script is a bit sloppy in its handling of the Merrit’s story (a doctor and his wife who are already heavily involved in trying to help bring some medical know-how to Uganda), and Dr. Garrigan’s collapse into the extravagances of Amin’s lifestyle instead of attempting to stay true to his ideals and purposes seems too calculated and rushed for comfort as well. But there isn’t a dull moment to be had, and the sumptuous production design of Amin’s palace contrasted with the miserable poverty in the outlying areas is always clearly delineated.
Forest Whitaker won the 2006 Best Actor Oscar for his performance, and it’s a mesmerizing one. From his first speech full of power and majesty and even fun to the spoiled, almost childlike dictator whose whims and favorites sway with the breeze along with a barely concealed bloodthirsty nature, Whitaker captures each emotion never surrendering that sense of threatening power that he has at his command. James McAvoy trods the path from naiveté to tortured realization as well as can be expected (pouring on a bad boy persona just a trifle too thickly) while Kerry Washington as Amin’s second wife Kay who engages in an ill-considered liaison with Garrigan is undeniably alluring. Gillian Anderson as the wife of the established doctor who momentarily flirts with the idea of cheating on her husband doesn’t have a fully flesh-out character to play, but she does the best she can with what she’s given. More commanding is the nearly silent menace conveyed by Abby Mukiibi as Amin’s second in command. David Oyelowo as another doctor taken into Garrigan’s confidence also does very well with his role.
The film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is delivered in 1080p using the AVC codec. Much of the transfer is sharp and appealing (with the African scenes often bathed in an attractive golden glow), but sharpness is erratic in this encode, and there are many scenes that simply don’t measure up to the transfer at its best. Grain levels are also inconsistent, some scenes having much heavier grain than others for no apparent reason. Blacks are nicely represented, and shadow detail is above average. The film has been divided into 28 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix features a nice spread of the Alex Heffes background score through the fronts and rears and a well above average use of the surrounds for ambient sounds like gunfire, crowd cheers, and clusters of people at garden parties or around Amin’s enormous pool. It’s not an aggressive sound mix but seems perfectly appropriate for the drama being portrayed.
The audio commentary by director Kevin Macdonald is well spoken and interesting. He doesn’t resort to describing what we’re seeing but rather relates anecdotes about the filming, the original novel, and the changes made throughout the movie. Fans of the movie will certainly gain additional insight into its making from listening to this.
All bonus features are presented in 480i.
There are seven deleted scenes which may be viewed individually or in one 12-minute clump. The viewer also has the option to watch them with or without director commentary.
“Capturing Idi Amin” is part biography of the infamous Ugandan leader and part behind-the-scenes look at how his story was brought to this film. Interviewed are not only cast and crew members but also countrymen who lived in the area under Amin’s brutal dominance. The most substantial feature on the disc, it runs for 29 minutes.
“Forest Whitaker: Idi Amin” is something of a misnomer since both Forest Whitaker and James McAvoy appear to discuss their characters from the film. The featurette runs for 6 minutes.
Fox Movie Channel Presents Casting Session” finds the film’s director, producer, and casting director discussing the difficulty of finding the proper actor to play the challenging role of Idi Amin. Then Forest Whitaker speaks about his approach to the character in this 8 ½ minute vignette.
The film’s theatrical trailer runs for 2 ¼ minutes.
4/5 (not an average)
The Last King of Scotland may be historical fiction, but it’s so well done that you’ll likely be convinced as I was that it’s an entirely true story. The Blu-ray has above average video and audio and features some bonus material well worth watching. Recommended!