Talk about getting your teeth into a juicy role. In Idi Amin, the great tyrant of Uganda from 1971 to 1979, Forest Whitaker has been given a sextuple whopper with extra cheese - and he supplies the relish. Resplendent in his uniform and medals, Whitaker's Amin is a gloriously mad and grandiloquent figure, conceived by screenwriters Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock as a Day-Glo Shakespearean monster, with audacious hints of Othello and even Titus Andronicus, a monster for whom they have written boldly extended dialogue scenes of unabashed intelligence and theatricality.
Kevin Macdonald is the award-winning documentary-maker making his feature debut with this cracking adaptation of Giles Foden's novel, telling the fictionalised story of Africa's panto-villain ruler, the blood-stained joker who killed 300,000 Ugandans. In the lead role of a lifetime, Whitaker treats the audience to a full-throated, technically accomplished cadenza of pure acting exuberance, the kind of performance that you feel ashamed for enjoying quite so much.
The story imagines an appalled witness-cum-accomplice to Amin's crimes in the form of Nicholas Garrigan, a white Scottish doctor who comes out to Africa to work for a medical mission, but keenly in search of new excitements. He is played by James McAvoy, who gives his most confident and screen-filling performance yet. Garrigan is young but not innocent exactly, and is dangerously excited by witnessing a rabble-rousing speech given by General Amin soon after a coup has brought him to power. Something in Amin's demagoguery answers a streak of craziness in Garrigan himself.
His fate turns on being called upon to treat Amin for an injured hand after the presidential motorcade has crashed into a cow; typically, Uganda's sociopathic drama-queen is behaving as if every bone is broken. Unable to concentrate on his bandaging on account of the dying animal's incessant lowing, Garrigan impulsively grabs Amin's own pistol and, through a scary mixture of compassion and irritation, shoots it dead. This act of mad presumption could have earned Garrigan a bullet in the head from any of Amin's trigger-happy guard, but with Caligulan caprice, the president decides that he adores the feisty, straight-talking Scot. He affects to see in Scottish devolutionary ambition a parallel to Africa's own struggle against the English bwana, and regales Garrigan with stories of how he trained among Scottish soldiers with the King's African Rifles. He even offers him a job as his personal physician - instantly and bizarrely entrusting him with confidences of state. It all soon goes to Garrigan's head.
Whitaker endows Amin with quicksilver mood changes, turning on a sixpence from terrifying bluster to grinning seduction and wheedling charm, and then to childlike paranoia and fear. Nothing is more scary than a tyrant's good mood, and Whitaker's celebratory, menacing grins light up the screen with sulphurous malice. There are displays of bullying humour which elicit nervous grins from a jittery bunch of courtiers, who know that they might be put to the sword at any moment. It is particularly embarrassing when Amin insists on attending state events dressed in the kilt, beaming indulgently while listening to African arrangements of Scottish folk songs and, in one droll moment, actually playing a melancholy tune himself on the accordion. His anger is, conversely, scarily blank. The fish-eyed stare has the implacable quality of a predator and his hectoring rages, punctuated by aggressive barks of "Huh?" feel like kidney punches.
Yet more disconcerting and intimidating are Amin's crazy lurches of non-logic. After his expulsion of Ugandan Asians is denounced throughout the international press, Amin angrily demands to know why Garrigan did not warn him not to do it, and when Garrigan furiously protests that he did precisely this, Amin declares: "Ah, but you did not persuade me, Nicholas!" Set against these loopy twists of despot reasoning are Amin's sudden, brutally perceptive taunts: he challenges Garrigan to admit that he came to Africa hoping to play the great white hunter - and he is right.
This monster has, it seems, been at least partly created by the British government (represented by Simon McBurney's reptilian diplomat, Stone), who are content to see a brutal but essentially biddable and pro-British strongman who will function as a bulwark against communism in Africa. It is from Stone that Garrigan will learn the nature of his Faustian bargain, when Stone agrees to get him out - for a price.
Morgan and Brock have injected love interest into Foden's original source material by making the grisly fate of Amin's third wife Kay intertwine with that of Garrigan himself, and Garrigan's sexual and political transgressions climax with two scenes of gruesome violence as the butchery and sadism of Amin's rule become all too apparent.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable, confident, dramatically satisfying movie from Macdonald, and incidentally another triumph for Peter Morgan, for whom the period now seems to offer any amount of rich material. (The rumoured Brian Clough film adapted by Morgan from David Peace's novel The Damned Utd sounds intriguing.)
The Last King of Scotland is a riveting satire of white Europe's horrified fascination with Africa as a Conradian heart of darkness, which is nevertheless ripe for plunder for a sufficiently cocksure adventurer. It is, above all things, a fantastic display of old-fashioned character acting from Forest Whitaker in a satanically villainous role. This is the kind of performance for which awards are designed.
“Political awareness can be raised as much by entertainment as rhetoric,” says director Ed Zwick of January’s other Africa-in-crisis movie, Blood Diamond. It’s a tenet that could equally be applied to this sometimes savagely violent examination of Uganda under Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker). Part Amin biopic, part political drama, part blistering thriller, Kevin Macdonald has taken a break from award-winning documentaries (One Day In September, Touching The Void) and instead created an unashamedly entertaining movie in his fiction debut, even if its final half-hour turns the screws on both Amin’s victims and the audience.
Based on the novel by Giles Foden, The Last King takes a fictional protagonist, Nicholas (James McAvoy), and slots him into an historical document of Amin’s regime, the young, Scottish doctor finding himself adopted, and manipulated, by the despot. It’s a movie of ambiguities on many levels, and can be tonally awkward at times. The third act is pure thriller as Nick tries to escape his increasingly desperate situation, and feels like a different film from the first hour, in which Macdonald’s documentary background is clearly evident. Such a flaw could, in less confident hands, prove fatal. But Macdonald covers the structural cracks by ensuring that the narrative pace never flags.
Indeed, it could be argued that the uneven structure is deliberate, underlining the film’s moral ambiguities. Macdonald presents us with a renowned monster — it’s estimated Amin had over 300,000 Ugandans killed before he was forced into exile — who appears, for a fair chunk of the movie, an endearingly eccentric figure. Meanwhile our ostensible hero is in Uganda to ‘do some good’, but within hours has blithely made the moves on his new boss’ wife (an underused Gillian Anderson) and a day later swapped the grim realities of outback medicine for a place at Amin’s privileged ‘court’. An underdeveloped subplot involving the British secret service’s attempts to manipulate the situation is similarly painted in shades of grey.
It’s a sophisticated message to offer in a film that plays like a mainstream blockbuster, and the daring presentation of an unavoidably human Amin succeeds largely because of an electrifying performance from Whitaker — rightly prompting Oscar talk. He makes it near impossible to draw firm conclusions about the man, his larger-than-life irrepressibility as hypnotic for the audience as for the naïve Nicholas. As the dark realities of the regime become clear — and a succession of horrific scenes will stay seared in the memory — it is with some reluctance that we are forced to admit that this is no affably bonkers George III, but a vicious mass murderer. The perfect foil is young upstart Nicholas, potentially colourless in comparison but, thanks to another nuanced performance from McAvoy, a protagonist as charming as he is cocky — crucial if we’re to root for him in those final terror-filled scenes.
There’s no denying that as the film reaches its conclusion Nick finds himself in situations ever more difficult to swallow. But forced moments aside, it succeeds in entertaining and raising questions in equal measure, and refuses to offer easy answers.
Both an enthralling examination of a horrific time and an adrenalin-filled thriller full of wry humour.