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Regarding a monster

Posted at 2:51 PM on October 4, 2006 by Euan Kerr

A Ugandan friend called Morgan and I went to see an advance screening of "The Last King of Scotland" last night. It's the new Kevin MacDonald feature on the rise of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin during the 1970s.

It's a harrowing film, based on the novel of the same name by Giles Foden, (who in a moment of marvelous casting turns up briefly as a fawning British journalist.)

Forest Whitaker plays the larger than life dictator magnificently. Amin was a man of great charm and wit who could, in a split second, turn into a murderous madman. Once greeted as a savior from the corruption of the previous regime, Amin went on to cause the deaths of 300,000 of his fellow Ugandans. Whitaker is brilliant, switching from benevolence to rage and back on a dime.

We see much of the story from the viewpoint of a Scottish doctor who Amin latches onto, in part due to his fascination with Scots history. This obsession leads to surreal moments when Amin appears in highland regalia to listen to an African choir sing "Loch Lomond."

For a while Dr Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) rides high, eventually becoming Amin's most trusted advisor. Yet even as that happens it's clear that it's just a matter of time before he falls victim to the dictators unpredictable and unforgiving temper. It's a terrifying tale.

Morgan and I compared notes about our reactions to the film. He squealed with delight a couple of times when seeing places he recognized in his hometown of Kampala, while I lamented at the accurate but awful dress sense displayed by the young doctor.

We agreed Whitaker is amazing. We also agreed that, despite a couple of very graphic scenes, in concentrating on the doctor's story the film missed the full horror of Amin's depredations.

Strangely I think the film touched me more than Morgan. He was born three years after Amin fled Uganda in 1977. He only knows the new Uganda. Meanwhile I remember when I was a youngster in Britain and Amin loomed large on the TV news almost nightly. There was his expulsion of his country's Asian population and then the hostage crisis that led to the successful Israeli raid on Entebbe.

I remember when we used to make fun of Amin, while always knowing it was a humor based both in fear, and the quiet recognition he was a direct result of Britain's post-colonial strategy in Africa.

There's a lot to be learned from "The Last King of Scotland." It's not a pleasant lesson.

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