Having newly graduated from med school, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy, "The Chronicles of Narnia's" Mr. Tumnus) jets off to Uganda to help its people while having some fun in the sun but his life takes a U-Turn when he has a fateful meeting with the country's seductive new leader Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker, "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," "Panic Room"). Amin asks the young Scottish doctor to become his personal physician and Garrigan accepts only to find himself trapped in a nightmare wrought by the dictator who fancied himself "The Last King of Scotland."
Director Kevin Macdonald who made the documentary "Touching the Void" seem like a hybrid of fiction and truth once again casts a true story through a fictional eye. Instead of the reenactments which made his documentary feel like fiction, here he uses Giles Foden's novel (adapted by Jeremy Brock and Peter Morgan) which presents the horrific Amin through the eyes of an imagined character whose truth is certainly stranger than fiction.
Garrigan is established chafing against a future expected by his father, a straight-laced Scottish country doctor. No sooner is he in Uganda, than he meets a pretty and accommodating young Black woman and he is met by an attractive white woman, Sarah Merrit (Gillian Anderson, "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story"), at the Mogambo mission where he is stationed. She's the wife of Dr. David Merrit (Adam Kotz), a good man whose wife is tempted by the more compromising Nicolas and it is she who is with him when he's called to the scene of an accident where Amin has met with minor injury. At first Amin does not know what to make of Garrigan's brash actions (he takes the dictators gun away to shoot the cow Amin's vehicle hit), but when he learns that the young man is a Scot, he is delighted - Amin is an avowed Scotophile.
Garrigan puffs up when he is called into the capital city of Kampala, but he hesitates when Amin offers him a job as his personal physician, a post which also includes heading up a city hospital. Amin guesses that the woman he saw is what is giving Nicolas pause and invites her along. When Garrigan is forced to admit she is married, Idi laughs heartily, declaring married women more passionate because they are more grateful. It is not difficult to predict that Garrigan will eventually become entangled with one of Amin's wives and that his new boss will not take the news with the same reaction. In fact, Kay Amin's (Kerry Washington, "Ray") fate is extremely disturbing to say the least and what Nicolas goes through before engineering his escape at Kampala's airport during Palestinian hijacking negotiations is pretty stomach churning.
Forrest Whitaker, an actor I generally regard as sensitive and gentle, twists those qualities into the surface warmth and charm that cloaked the apparent low self esteem which turned the man into such a monster. It's a terrific performance which is sure to be remembered at year's end. James McAvoy, one of Britain's best up and coming actors, plays an almost distasteful character, a young man with seducible morals whose compromises literally put blood on his hands, and yet he keeps the audience invested in seeing him through his predicament. His is strong work. Kerry Washington gives one of her best performances to date as well, disappearing into the role of the neglected Amin wife (one of her children is epileptic, something Amin finds shameful). With far less screen time, Anderson is also quite good, an early representation of Garrigan's bad behavior and later the rebuke of a nation. Good support also comes from Simon McBurney ("Friends with Money") as Nigel Stone, a British operative looking for Garrigan's cooperation, and David Oyelowo ("The Best Man," "Derailed") as Garrigan's more principled right hand man, Dr. Junju.
The adapted screenplay is well constructed, two men each showing different faces as they react to each other's actions. True life and rumored events are both well woven into the story. Garrigan's eventual actions are foreshadowed in the playful statement 'If we had monkeys in Scotland, we'd probably deep fry them,' while Amin's rumored cannibalism is also handled lightly, joked about by the dictator as he invites guests to dine. Amin's rise to power is writ understandable given his background rising from poverty into the military ranks with a true desire to relate to and provide for his people. The paranoia which drove him to darkness begins with an ambush by soldiers of the man he ousted, an event woven into Garrigan's experience, just like the true life hijacking which provides the film's climax. Production values are terrific (the film was shot on location in Scotland and Uganda), with designer Michael Carlin's palette and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle's ("Millions") camera contrasting the cool, gray colors of Scotland with vibrant African hues.
"The Last King of Scotland" may be seen as this year's "Hotel Rwanda," but that film firstly was seen through the eyes of a native and secondly was more powerful in presenting the horrors that afflicted an entire country. Macdonald's film is a good one and well acted, but its viewpoint from inside the palace walls makes it more intimate, and therefore oddly, less devastating, drama.
Robin did not see this film.
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