BY PAMELA FOOHEY
With the Oscars less than two weeks away, audiences, at least in Boston, are filling the movie theaters to see the remaining nominated films on their lists. I joined them twice last weekend for a themed viewing of films based loosely on true events in the lives of dictators and monarchs.
The Last King of ScotlandStarring: James McAvoy, Forest WhitakerDirector: Kevin MacDonald
Adapted from a novel by Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland recounts the reign of real-life Ugandan president Idi Amin (Whitaker) through the eyes of a fictional Scottish doctor (McAvoy) who unwittingly gets caught up in the destructive reign of the narcissistic despot. Perhaps due to the blend of truth and fiction, the film comes off as telling two separate stories: the true story of the bloodthirsty Amin, and the fictional story of Nick Garrigan, a young and na’ve doctor from Scotland who travels to Uganda to add excitement to his life while doing some good. Due to unbelievably random events, Garrigan becomes Amin’s personal physician, moving from the abject poverty of a small village in Uganda to the lavish luxury of a city ruled by Amin. Despite the warnings of his counterparts in the village and in the city, Garrigan falls for Amin’s enthusiastic declarations of his desire to bring peace and prosperity to the nation, not realizing the extent of Amin’s destructive nature until it may be too late for him to escape.
Running parallel to the story of Garrigan’s misguided excursion to Africa is the aggrandized yet true account of Amin’s reign. Lacking a true plot, Amin’s storyline serves to allow Whitaker to craft the charming yet maniacal Amin. Despite the disjointedness, it is Whitaker’s charismatic, frightening, and haunting performance of one of the world’s most evil and mentally unstable figures that makes The Last King of Scotland so powerful. Indeed, Whitaker already won a Golden Globe for his performance, and I would not be surprised if he walks away with the best actor Oscar. Whitaker’s take on Amin at first evokes a desire to hug the cheerful teddy bear pleasing the crowds, but in the end provokes a desire to kill the unhinged madman before he destroys everything around him, including the viewer. The Last King of Scotland, although filled with violence and terror hard to stomach at points, ultimately emerges as one of the most memorable films of the year.
The QueenStarring: Helen Mirren, Michael SheenDirector: Stephen Frears
“Of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest was this: a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age.”(1) The Queen portrays the British Royal Family during the period after Princess Diana’s tragic death, with Helen Mirren delivering a riveting performance as Queen Elizabeth II. In the wake of Diana’s death, the Queen remains with her family at their estate in Balmoral. It is there that she makes the fatal mistake of not publicly acknowledging Diana’s death, and it is this mistake that tests her authority as a monarch as never before. While the Queen receives support in upholding royal traditions from the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms) and Prince Charles (James Crowell), newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Sheen) repeatedly attempts to persuade the Queen just how destructive her stoic behavior has become to the Crown. It is his pleas, the media’s attacks, and the outcries of the English people that ultimately drive the Queen to bring her family back to London. In the end, it is the Queen who has become the hunted: hunted by the world in an attempt to console itself with the fact that she does care about Diana’s death.
Although the film does not have much of a plot, it is the characters that make the film the already decorated masterpiece it is. Capturing six nominations in total, The Queen itself is nominated for best picture, and Stephen Frears is nominated for best director. Mirren picked up a Golden Globe for her performance and is nominated for best actress. Indeed, her remarkable performance makes her a strong contender for the Oscar. While the entire cast’s expert acting gives viewers a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the Royal Family, it is Mirren’s performance that brings a mix of humor and compassion to a film that expertly blends comedy with human drama and tragedy. Through the eyes of Mirren’s Queen, we see a side of the Royal Family that we may never see in real life; and it proves to be a delightful glimpse.
(1) Earl Spencer’s Eulogy of Diana, Princess of Wales, Westminster Abbey, September 6, 1997.