Aberrant human behavior, from extreme na & iuml;vet & eacute; to power-induced madness, is at the fore of the new film from Scottish director Kevin Macdonald, who also made Touching the Void. That true story leads to this fictional one, an adaptation of the 1998 Giles Foden novel about a Scottish doctor who sets out to make his mark by spinning a globe, having his finger land on Uganda, then actually going there.
That turns out to be the first of many mistakes made by na & iuml;ve young Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy, who played the faun in The Chronicles of Narnia).
Set in 1970, just after General Idi Amin began his notorious rule, the film starts out as a tale about a talented but reckless doctor. Soon, however, it turns into a story about the early days of the Amin regime -- and it ends up focusing on the uneasy relationship between the two men.
"What are the soldiers for?" the doctor asks a fellow passenger on a bus when he first lands in the African country and notices tanks outside the window. He's told that it's because of the coup, but not to worry. So he doesn't. That would be red flag number one for most people.
Nor does he worry when he first meets up with David (Adam Kotz), the doctor he's to work with in a small village, along with David's wife, Sarah (Gillian Anderson). They inform him that although there have long lines of patients, most of the villagers still believe in the local witch doctor.
Nicholas doesn't say anything, but -- and this is one of the fine points of McAvoy's performance -- frustration can be seen all over his pale, blue-eyed face. It's clear that he's wondering what he's gotten himself into.
Before much can be made of any of this, it's Forest Whitaker's turn to grab the spotlight as the co-central character, General Idi Amin -- a huge man with, it's later shown, no patience, a vicious temper and a gentle, calming voice (when he's not screaming).
Whitaker (who, if anything about Oscar nominations is just, should be a shoo-in for one), takes this role and makes it rivetingly his own, just as he has so many times before (Bird, The Crying Game, Ghost Dog).
Cinematographer Anthony Tod Mantle regularly gets up close to McAvoy and, through stylized lighting, makes some personality-revealing use of his piercing blue eyes. Whitaker, meanwhile, uses his bulk, a great big smile, an excited demeanor and his character's natural gift of gab to show off Amin's many facets. His brilliance in the role is that he has Amin change personalities in a snap -- with conviction, unexpectedly, many times.
The Ugandan people treat their charismatic new leader like a rock star. During a speech to a village group, he struts around, calls himself a simple man, yells out, "I am you!" and is greeted with cheers. When he takes notice of the focused young doctor, he calls him to his lush headquarters and makes him an offer he can't refuse (to become his personal physician), then tells him he can't refuse it.
By this point, red flags about Amin are very apparent, as is the doctor's careless attitude (note his conduct around other men's wives). The only question is how long will it take for things to go wrong for him. And again, McAvoy steps right up with more physical reaction than dialogue to get Nicholas across when, for instance, the genocidal Amin says to him for the third or fourth time, "You are my closest advisor." McAvoy makes it clear that Garrigan doesn't want to hear those words.
At its basic level, the film is about a boss from hell -- a dangerous, deadly man. The story of the relationship with the doctor and the dictator would have been even more interesting had it gone a bit deeper. But the film ends up turning into a potboiler involving an airport hostage crisis (Google "Operation Entebbe" for details) and literally leaves its characters in the dust.
The ending may be both exciting and disappointing, but the film remains fascinating.
THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND
Directed by Kevin MacDonald
Starring Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Gillian Anderson