The Last King of Scotland

The Last King of Scotland

Fox Search Light is gonna have a hell of a time selling The Last King of Scotland to a wide audience. The first dramatic feature from British documentarian Kevin MacDonald is perhaps the best English language film of the year. But it’s about Idi Amin for god’s sake. And Forest Whitaker is playing him. Maybe if it had been Will Smith or Jamie Foxx. But Ghost Dog? No way.

The film is based on Giles Foden’s Whitbread-winning novel about a young Scot who stumbles into serving as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s personal physician. (Foden plays a British journalist in the film.)

The doctor in question, named Nicholas Garrigan, is Foden’s fictional creation, but if he is based on anyone, it is Bob Astles, a British soldier who worked his way into Amin’s favour and ultimately spent six and-a-half years in prison once the hulking tyrant was deposed. The differences between Astles and Garrigan are too many to mention, the least of which being that the former was already in Uganda and married (and working for Amin’s predecessor and political enemy Milton Obote) when Amin came to power. But whether or not you approve of Foden’s playful treatment of history, you can’t deny the novel’s power.

I’m hesitant to say it, but MacDonald’s adaptation is even more stirring that its source material. Not because the plot-streamlining that screenwriters Peter Morgan (The Queen), Jeremy Brock (Mrs. Brown, Charlotte Gray) and Joe Penhall (author of the play Blue/Orange) engage in doesn’t rob Foden’s book of many of its rich elements, but because it makes Garrigan appear far more impulsive. In MacDonald’s hands, the story becomes a far more incisive look at youthful idealism. As a friend (who himself just returned after a working stint in Uganda) remarked after we left the promo screening, “It’s like The Beach. But far more frightening.”

After completing med school, Garrigan (James McAvoy) retreats to his room, spins the globe and decides to go wherever his finger lands. After dismissing his first cuticle-a-terre (Canada), the young doctor spins again, finding exotic Uganda more enticing. The next thing we know, he has been picked up at Kampala airport by Sarah Meritt (Gillian Anderson), the gorgeous but lonely British wife of the head (and only doctor) at a rural hospital where he’s meant to serve. When she informs him that there’s been a coup, Garrigan has no idea who’s been replaced and who has taken power.

It seems like the doctor’s hardly been there a week when he is suddenly offered the job of president’s physician. Amin, it turns out, is a bit of a Scotophile, empathizing with their anti-colonial struggle. Not only has he named his children Campbell and MacKenzie, but Amin routinely dons a quilt and requests the performance of traditional Scottish music. Once Garrigan has had a taste of the high life in Kampala, all the ideas he once claimed to possess go right out the window—and serious self-delusion begins.

You can’t really blame Garrigan. Forest Whitaker’s Amin is a mighty charming guy. He’s big and he’s fun and he throws a great party. He talks the populist talk about building a new, black Uganda and appeals to Garrigan’s lust for power and drama by making him his “closest advisor.” Soon, the young doctor is making major development decisions on behalf of the regime, earning gorgeous German sports cars for his trouble. By the time Garrigan realizes that over 300,000 Ugandans have been killed at the hands of the government and that he too is implicated, it’s too late. As the state gets swallowed up in Amin’s paranoia and rage, the young Scot struggles to smuggle himself out.

When portraying a real-life personality on film, an actor has two options: they can impersonate or they can embody. Too many Hollywood biopics rely on impersonation. But simply nailing Amin’s accent, Whitaker embodies the spirit of the dictator rather than merely mirroring his mannerisms. If this performance doesn’t secure him an Oscar nod, the world is seriously out of joint.

While the Academy is penciling in Whitaker, they should take a second for MacDonald, McAvoy and Last King‚s scriptwriters as well. Whether or not you’re familiar with Amin as a historical figure (or can even locate Uganda on a map), the film is engrossing from its earliest frames, gorgeously shot and impeccably edited. The beauty of the Ugandan countryside and the hipness of 70s Kampala are as intoxicating as Amin’s Cheshire cat grin. And, the viewer is just as equally seduced as Garrigan himself, implicated along with the idealistic young Scot. Which is exactly as it should be.

The Last King of Scotland is now playing at the Varsity, 55 Bloor St. W.