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Besides their royal link, the titles of The Last King of Scotland and The Queen share a similarly misleading quality: They make these two terrific films sound like solos, when in fact they’re shifting-power duets. The Last King of Scotland charts the doomed friendship of Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin and a fictionalized Scottish doctor, while The Queen observes a crucial week in the relationship of Britain’s Elizabeth II and newly installed Prime Minister Tony Blair. Yet if the one-person titles misrepresent the stories, they’re accurate about the performances: Each movie is dominated by the actor who plays its titular role.
The Last King of Scotland both opens and closes with Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a young Scotsman desperate for escape. In the prologue, he’s threatened by nothing more perilous than his father’s stolid vision of the future. Just graduated from medical school, Nicholas spins a globe, promising himself that he’ll venture wherever his finger stops. When that turns out to be Canada, he allows himself another whirl, this time landing someplace more interesting. Cue chiming African music and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s harshly oversaturated hues as the Scot arrives in Uganda. Nicholas has taken a job in a small rural clinic, where—not for the last time—he finds himself attracted to a busy man’s neglected wife. So it might seem that Nicholas is eluding trouble when, after a chance encounter with new Ugandan leader Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), he leaves the clinic to become the larger-than-life ruler’s personal physician.
Amin is impressed with Nicholas’ decisiveness, but also with his nationality. The new dictator was educated by the British military, and fought in a Scottish regiment against Kenya’s Mau-Maus. Amin sometimes wears a kilt, playfully calls himself Scotland’s last king, and has even given some of his abundant offspring such clan names as MacKenzie and Campbell. The doctor and the dictator bond over their mutual hatred for the imperious, imperialistic English, a disdain that’s one reason Nicholas rejects overtures from unctuous Anglo spy Stone (Simon McBurney), who warns him about his new boss. The principal reason Nicholas ignores Stone, however, is simply that he’s having too much fun. Being Amin’s doctor is an unpredictable gig, and it involves many assignments that have nothing to do with medicine. The parties that follow are great, though, and despite glimmers of danger, Uganda’s leader is generous, charismatic, and good-humored. But gradually Amin’s mood swings become wilder, and his whims more openly lethal. This would be a bad time for Nicholas to develop an interest in one of Amin’s wives, Kay (Kerry Washington)—but he does.
Halfway between docudrama and historical fantasy, The Last King of Scotland was adapted from Giles Foden’s novel by scripters Peter Morgan—who also wrote The Queen—and Jeremy Brock, and directed by Kevin Macdonald, whose Touching the Void expanded the boundaries of documentary. The movie uses Nicholas, a composite of several non-Africans who were seduced and abandoned by Amin, as a means to approach the Ugandan madman’s appeal. Although Amin’s murderousness is not ignored, the film doesn’t intend to be a complete indictment of his 1971–1978 rule, which resulted in the expulsion of all South Asian residents (who were crucial to the nation’s economy) and a reported 300,000 deaths. Instead, it focuses on Amin’s gusto, humor, and—strange but apparently true—joie de vivre. This Amin is an ever-surprising mix of self-delusion and crystalline insight, capable at the movie’s climax of delivering a withering put-down of his dilettantish (and now-discarded) personal physician.
The hulking Whitaker, who’s best known for gentle-giant roles, exuberantly captures Amin’s temperamental range, from homicidal paranoia to earthy hilarity—as when he realizes that what he thought was the effects of poison is actually just a bad case of intestinal gas. Yet while Whitaker commands the film with the mercurial authority of the man he plays, The Last King of Scotland is ultimately a two-man show; the movie doesn’t work without McAvoy’s savvy performance or without Nicholas’ character. If Amin is the last king of any country that’s too battered to survive another potentate, Nicholas is the naive Everyman who’s helplessly drawn to the latest contender to offer vigor and self-assurance as substitutes for vision and humanity.
Both The Last King of Scotland and The Queen are chess matches, but where the former’s game is shadowed by genuine violence, the latter’s is a battle of images—tradition and reserve, embodied by a queen who takes care not to wear out her welcome, versus celebrity and sentimentality, exemplified by video images and cheap emotions available 24 hours a day. Director Stephen Frears, master interpreter of exotic London subcultures in such films as Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and Dirty Pretty Things, turns here to one that’s hidden in plain sight. And what better time to observe the royals than while under the stress applied by the death of “the people’s princess”?
It was Tony Blair who uttered that phrase, and The Queen opens with TV footage of the new PM’s election. As ritual requires, Tony and Cherie Blair (real-life look-alikes Michael Sheen and Helen McCrory) are soon having a formal audience with Elizabeth (Helen Mirren in a wig as steely-gray as her manner). The queen is fully in control, as the awed Tony and bemused Cherie struggle to follow protocol. A few months later, however, the queen and her minister’s positions of authority shift. Reports arrive of Diana’s Paris car crash and then death, and Britain (and the whole princess-loving world) erupts in ostentatious sorrow. The royals are at Balmoral, their Scottish estate, and intend to say nothing. Diana, after all, is no longer Prince Charles’ wife, and there is—as one stuffy retainer informs Blair—“no precedent” for the demise of “an ex-HRH.”
It falls to the prime minister, both with public gestures and in private negotiations with the queen’s staff and the monarch herself, to show Elizabeth that there must be a public funeral and, ultimately, a statement from Herself herself. The results are no surprise: Even people who abhorred or ignored the Princess Di frenzy must know that Blair won this argument, and that it was best for the queen’s standing that he did. While Frears intercuts news and talk-show clips to recall the mood of the moment, Peter Morgan’s script concentrates on nuances of process and character. Blair’s belief that Elizabeth must acknowledge Diana’s death looks as pandering as it is “democratic,” while the queen’s reluctance is a complex blend of custom, decorum, and antipathy to her former daughter-in-law. This quietly comic tussle makes for archetypal British drawing-room theater, considering class, duty, and suppressed feelings—while tabloid-TV passions and Elton John’s dreadful “Candle in the Wind 1997” await just offstage.
Although The Queen doesn’t flatter Princes Philip and Charles, or the Queen Mum, it’s hardly seditious. Diana’s sons are rendered tastefully as vague presences, and the people’s surrogate—Blair himself—is ultimately charmed by Elizabeth. (“At the end of the day, all Labor prime ministers go gaga for the queen,” Cherie tartly remarks.) Mirren barely softens Elizabeth, depicting her as a woman who’s always “on” as monarch, even when she’s only with a solitary aide or relative. Yet the queen does have some tender moments, reflecting her love of the British landscape and its natural inhabitants. This Elizabeth feels boundless obligation to “the people” but would rather go “walkies” with her corgis, admire a stag on a hillside, or drive her Range Rover solo than attempt the newfangled openness required by the cable-TV age.
It’s unlikely that the real Elizabeth is as likable as Mirren’s version, or that the actual Amin was as charming as Whitaker’s impersonation. Historically, in fact, The Last King of Scotland and The Queen may be just as misleading as Oliver Stone’s more confrontational current-affairs rewrites. As parables of power and its limitations, however, both films are instructive. Neither intimidation nor tradition are impregnable defenses, the movies show, but then neither are appeals to modernity and mass sentiment. It’s Elizabeth who gets the last word, coolly informing Blair that the public disdain that scourged her will someday touch him, too.CP