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Saturday, 13 January 2007

The Last King of Scotland

Last night I went to a special screening of 'The Last King of Scotland' at the Curzon Soho. Finally, my membership of the Curzon yielded tangible results. After a year of frustratingly being unable to take advantage of members' events and reduced ticket prices thanks to working outside the M25 and being too tired to go to the cinema at the end of each 14 hour day, the Curzon redeemed themselves once and for all by giving me a couple of complimentary tickets to 'The Last King of Scotland' with an after-show Q&A with director Kevin MacDonald and writer Giles Foden.
How did this come about? In October they'd announced they would be giving a limited number of free tickets to members who emailed in quickly enough. Quick as a flash I emailed to petition for a pair of tickets to 'The Last King Of Scotland', having seen the trailer and more importantly fancied James McAvoy ever since his show-stealing turn in David Yates 'State of Play'.
Well might I say this was only one of the wisest decisions I have made in recent years, possibly decades.
The film is quite simply brilliant.

McAvoy is as watchable as ever, but his performance is - rightfully - a supporting one to that of Forest Whittaker, who should almost certainly win an Oscar for his role as Idi Amin. Whittaker inhabits the character completely and with absolute commitment, allowing Amin's terrifying charisma, humour and sensitivity to mutate in the blink of an eye to fearsome cruelty and downright psychotic violence.
In the face of what most of us already know about Amin, one gauge of the film's power is the fact that we are just as prey to this fictional Amin's charms as McAvoy's naive doctor is. Against my will, I found myself smiling in the early part of the film, as Whittaker's Amin told a joke or took the skittish young doctor under his wing. It's an important point of empathy, to be as taken in, and thus as betrayed, as McAvoy's character is later in the film, and by making us complicit, Kevin McDonald goes some way to suggest how such a man as Amin might rise to power.
After the film McDonald said it was 'in so many ways a Faustian tale'. That classic narrative of the man who sells his soul to the devil is certainly a good parallel, although I would argue more strongly for the influence of another tragedy, 'Macbeth'. McAvoy lying in a swimming pool after he has betrayed someone in the most terrible way is an update of Lady Macbeth's hand-washing antics; the bloody descent of Amin's idealistic rule to crazed dictorship and Amin's growing paranoia reflect Macbeth's tragic fall from grace and growing isolation.
The real power of the film comes from the way it looks, sounds, feels. The film is an overwhelming sensory experience quite different from any of the other glossy Hollywood films I've seen recently - 'The Departed', 'Black Book', 'Blood Diamond' - all of which are highly polished pieces of big-budget Hollywood moviemaking. 'The Last King of Scotland' is proof that documentary film-makers can bring something completely invigorating to fictional features which more experienced feature film directors somehow lose by the wayside.

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