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Whitaker dominates ‘Last King of Scotland’

Rama Gottumukkala | Sunday, March 4, 2007

When a great actor seizes control of a career-defining role, he does more than mimic actions and words. He lives, eats and breathes that person’s life.

Screen legend Marlon Brando was renowned for the depths to which he’d sink in pursuit of honing his craft. For his first screen appearance in the 1950 film “The Men,” Brando spent a month in bed at a veterans’ hospital to prepare himself for the role of Lieutenant Bud Wilozek, a bitter paraplegic and World War II survivor. Brando did more than play Wilozek. He became him.

Fifty-six years later, Forest Whitaker went to the same lengths in his pursuit of brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin for “The Last King of Scotland.” Whitaker mastered Amin’s East African accent and learned Swahili. He met Amin’s family and friends. He spent hours poring over books and watching documentary footage, studying the man and his methods. For five months, Whitaker delved further and further into the deep, dark recesses of Amin’s mind to bring his tyranny back to life.

The results are astounding, as Whitaker’s brilliantly raw turn here is one of the great screen performances of the past decade. His Amin is baleful and benevolent, savage and sympathetic. For the first 60 minutes, Whitaker beguiles us so skillfully that his monstrosities in the film’s climax alarm us that much more.

For all the press surrounding him, Whitaker’s Amin isn’t even the central character in this story. The moral center to “Last King” is Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a young, idealistic Scotsman who arrives in Uganda to aid a rural hospital. When he’s called upon to treat a minor injury to Amin, Garrigan impresses the newly appointed Ugandan president with his candor.

The feeling is mutual, as Garrigan is in turn drawn by Amin’s charisma. An admirer of the Scots, Amin takes on Garrigan as his personal physician and advisor. But as the years pass by, Garrigan can no longer ignore Amin’s increasing paranoia and moral corruption, which gives way to the slaughter of thousands of Ugandans, the very people Amin had sworn to protect near the film’s start.

McAvoy has one of the hardest tasks in this picture, and he deserves a lot of credit for not being engulfed by Whitaker’s masterful performance. Amin cajoles, bullies, flatters and menaces Garrigan, but McAvoy’s character never plays a secondary role to Whitaker’s Amin in the overall plot of the film, which is both an asset and a distraction for director Kevin MacDonald’s film.

The problem with this movie, ironically, is that Whitaker is too good. Having recently been crowned with a Best Actor Oscar for his work, Whitaker delivers the performance of a lifetime here. In multiple scenes, he transitions seamlessly from a booming, mirthful laugh to a frenzied rumble when angered, his face contorting with rage.

Whitaker’s Amin can never be ignored, and his absence in the film’s midsection is palpable as the narrative drags without him. Sadly, Garrigan is a footnote in his own story as he slips further into Amin’s grasp. We are so enamored of Whitaker’s Amin that we wait with baited breath for the lion’s return each time we’re tested with Garrigan’s misfortunes.

Fierce, domineering and captivating, Whitaker’s performance in “The Last King of Scotland” will outlive the film itself in the years to come. Like Brando and the great screen actors of old, Whitaker does more that play Amin in this biographical effort. He becomes him, stamping his fearsome visage upon Amin’s face before our very eyes.