Friday, February 2, 2007

The Fascination of Tyrants

The Last King of Scotland reveals yet again the fascination we have for tyrants and the way their brains work. Let me quickly pass by Forest Whitaker’s fine performance, apparently already a shoo-in for the Best Actor Oscar, which I assume has a lot of note perfect imitation of the dictator’s public face. The jokey press conference towards the end is probably readily available as a research material and would allow a skilled actor with some technique to replicate it exactly. The private Amin remained an enigma until now when we have Whitaker’s impersonation of him to fill in the gap. It’s the same trick that Bruno Ganz was called upon to do in Downfall and Issey Ogata did in The Sun. The telemovie Archangel, based on Robert Harris’s novel about a revival of Stalinism that might arise if some hidden progeny were unearthed, takes this a step further. Its trick is to invent a plot to reinstate Stalin’s son and heir and hence his methods of managing the Russian state. The suspense is in how, not if, it will be foiled. This is all endlessly fascinating and, as Harris’s novel shows, isn’t confined to the movies.

More generally, the representation of the modern tyrant will show his love for children, at least his own or those close to him, his superstitions, any odd eating habits and his weaknesses. Amin’s shame as his flatulence is cured is the perfect embodiment of the necessary moment of personal weakness. The film uses the Scottish doctor Nicholas Carrigan and his impetuous and often weak decisions as a surrogate for us all. We are easily seduced by forceful charm. We are easily frightened by the mildest threat. It takes a lot of violence before the citizen stands up.

In the meantime, the story always has this horrible fascination because the dictator himself must be made an attractive figure, full of personal charm, endlessly caring for his immediate loved ones, always ready with a little speech or homily about doing good for the country and its people. Kevin McDonald’s movie gets all this right. The young Dr Carrigan is easily seduced into a life of luxury and lust. The latter particularly which almost leads to his end when he seduces an out-of-favour Amin wife. The portrait of a Uganda sinking into an ever deeper economic and social mess is far less clearly done. The sense of documentary which is conveyed by the photography stops well short of that though the moment when we discover that Amin has resorted to the use of a double no doubt intends to reminds us of the evils of Saddam Hussein as well as that of the Ugandan himself.

The film ends rather abruptly. Carrigan tries to escape, is caught and then we experience the gruesome method by which it is proposed to kill the doctor, and which commences before our very eyes. It bears comparison only with a similar moment in Miike’s Ichi the Killer. Before that rush to the end Carrigan’s inevitable speech about Africa being different and needing a strong hand is a gentle reminder of how easy it is to tolerate the intolerable. All told, a fascinating film.

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