The Last King of Scotland

The Contenders

Release: Sep. 27

Distributor: Fox Searchlight

Oscar Alum: Kevin Macdonald (doc, “One Day in September”)

Several Oscar contenders over the last few years have piqued the conscience of the Western world over recent or current tragedies in Africa, notably “The Constant Gardener” and “Hotel Rwanda.” This year, “The Last King of Scotland” holds up a mirror to the brutal reign of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin some 30 years ago and finds in the reflection much that is relevant to today’s world.

Story, based on the book by Giles Foden, follows young Scottish doctor Nicholas Gerrigan (James McAvoy), who goes to Uganda in the early 1970s in search of romance and adventure, then gets caught up with the country’s new president (Forest Whitaker). First he’s charmed by Amin, then horrified by the brutality he witnesses, only to find himself unable to escape.

The Fox Searchlight pic has done modest business in limited release, and Searchlight is probably looking for awards buzz to give it a boost. It snagged six British Independent Film Award noms, including best British indie, actor noms for Whitaker and McAvoy, cinematography for Anthony Dod Mantle, screenplay for Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock, and directing for Kevin Macdonald.

It’s a big jump from the Bifas to the Oscar competish, but Whitaker’s performance is showy enough to make the leap. The Academy tends to warm to vibrant portrayals of real people, from “Ray” to “Gandhi,” and also likes to reward stars playing the extremes of human behavior, be it “Rain Man’s” autistic savant or Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs.” This role has both, and allows the audience to see the paranoia that turned Amin into a monster. Whitaker’s work is respected, and this role could find him enthusiastic support in the actors branch, the Acad’s largest bloc.

Whitaker is not the whole show here, though. Director Macdonald already has an Oscar (for 1999 documentary “One Day in September”) and has a knack for capturing tension and authenticity onscreen. Screenwriters Morgan (who also penned “The Queen”) and Jeremy Brock have departed from the book in important ways, especially the in their depiction of Gerrigan. Some critics praise the changes and McAvoy’s perf, some fans of the book dislike them.

Pic was made on a shoestring under challenging conditions in Uganda, and producers admit they had to drop scenes and only barely got enough footage to piece the film together. Alas, there’s little extra credit for difficulty. Most critics have noted the film’s fast pace, but some complain the pic drags in the second act. Still, “Last King” is most likely to contend for actor, screenplay and some below-the-line honors. Michael Carlin’s production design and Michael O’Connor’s costumes are particularly notable.

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