Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown — Shakespeare

05_c157-11-resized.jpg

By a happy coincidence, two films that focus on real-life “royalty” have just opened in Chicago. The Queen, from director Stephen Frears, is the more polished of the two, but both it and The Last King of Scotland” offer fascinating, almost voyeuristic portraits of rulers in the midst of crisis.

Helen Mirren stars as Queen Elizabeth II. We first see her as she poses for a portrait and condescends about various officials, including the Prime Minister-elect Tony Blair. Indeed when she initially meets him, she pointedly mentions that he’s the tenth prime minister who’s served under her. Less than four months later, however, came the biggest catastrophe to hit the royal family in over 60 years. I refer, of course, to the death of Princess Diana. And as The Queen posits, royalty in Britain may have survived that crisis only because of the sure political footing of Tony Blair.

The Last King of Scotland isn’t about a king per se but a man who fashioned himself a king and ended up a horrific tyrant–Idi Amin. Amin was a general who came to power in Uganda in 1971. At first, his reign was welcomed by the people, but he quickly abandoned his idea to hold free elections and instead spent much of the ‘70s hunting down his political enemies, both real and perceived. The film traces his rule and barbaric tyranny through the eyes of a young, white (and fictional) adviser.

0009_01871-resized.jpgBoth movies are anchored by spectacularly fine performances. Helen Mirren inhabits the role of Queen Elizabeth in a way that goes far beyond imitation. Unlike Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-winning turn as Katherine Hepburn a couple years back, Mirren is uncannily like the Queen and yet also a real character. We watch her struggle with how to react to these unforeseen circumstances, we see how she rejects Blair’s initial suggestions, and we come to understand why she hesitated so long in the face of public outcry to break royal protocol. In Mirren’s hands, Queen Elizabeth becomes not exactly a sympathetic figure but at least one who’s more fleshed out than the tabloids and talk shows made her out to be. And Mirren does this with perfect subtlety: an arched eyebrow here, pursed lips there, a simple pause as she speaks or picks up the phone. If this performance doesn’t have Academy Award written all over it, I’m not a good prognosticator.

Forest Whitaker might be joining her on Oscar’s stage this winter for his portrayal of Idi Amin. His performance is flashier, as he captures Amin’s descent into paranoia and butchery, but Whitaker also helps us understand why so many Ugandans would’ve fallen in love with him in the first place. He’s a force of nature in the movie’s first half, as he swings wildly between jokes and speeches to more sinister meetings with his cadre. He uses his large frame and huge smile to communicate Amin’s charisma, and then quickly shifts his facial expression to indicate Amin’s instability. Whitaker has been strong in movies like Ghost Dog and Bird, but he’s struggled to find meaty roles since then. The Last King of Scotland is a reminder of what a talent he is.

c177-05-resized.jpgUnfortunately, Last King isn’t exactly about Idi Amin. Instead, the story is filtered through the fictional Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy, who’s out-acted by Whitaker at every turn). Garrigan is a young Scottish doctor who decides to go to Uganda for fun and adventure. Through a contrived coincidence, he becomes the personal doctor to Amin and soon his most trusted adviser. I’ve written many times before about how irritating it is that movies about Africa usually tell their stories through the eyes of white people (Hotel Rwanda being the exception that proves the rule). As if American audiences won’t bother with a movie that’s actually about African people.

The Last King of Scotland adds to that cliche by emphasizing the strangeness of the continent. With only one exception, Africans are either monsters or saints. The great Kerry Washington tries to find a middle ground as Amin’s third wife, but she spends most of the movie as a sex object. That lack of subtlety isn’t as noticeable in the film’s fine first hour, as we watch Garrigan and Amin bond, but the movie grows progressively more lurid in its second half and completely runs off the rails in the final scenes.

The Queen, on the other hand, maintains an exquisitely sophisticated tone throughout its 97 minutes. Frears paces his scenes perfectly, which is a tremendous achievement given how familiar the material is to anyone who was watching tv in 1997. Despite the fact we all know what happened and can probably even remember parts of Diana’s brother’s eulogy, there’s real tension as we watch the royal family and Tony Blair diplomatically fight over how the funeral will play out. It helps that Michael Sheen is completely convincing as Blair, but real credit must be given to Peter Morgan for his sharp script. He understands the appeal for an audience of being a fly on the wall, of feeling as if we’re privy to secret conversations and arguments (that’s true of Last King as well, though it becomes less believable as the movie goes on).

I’m not a fan of bio-pics, but The Queen makes the wise decision to concentrate almost exclusively on one week. That focus makes for gripping entertainment. And the movie doesn’t shy away from the political implications, but it frames them in ways that all audiences should be able to understand. We may not exactly grasp what it’s like to wear a crown (or wield total power in the case of Amin), but our leaders won’t feel quite as remote.

The Queen, four stars
The Last King of Scotland, three stars (both out of five)