Loosely based on real events, The Last King of Scotland is an eye-popping drama about the rise to, and abuse of, power of Idi Amin. As the magnetic General Amin (played to award-worthy effect by Forest Whitaker) seizes control of Uganda in 1971, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a young Scottish doctor, arrives in the country, with wet-behind-the-ears ideas of ‘making a difference’. He does. Just not in the manner he naively expected.
Circumstances see Garrigan become Amin’s personal physician and medical advisor. For the idealistic recent graduate, it’s going to be his chance to really do things, to help the people of Uganda, to instigate big changes at the top. And then Amin’s true character begins to emerge. Instead of the passionate and charming leader he initially appeared, Amin gradually reveals himself as paranoid, violent and, very possibly insane. By the time of his downfall in 1979, Amin’s dictatorship had caused the death of at least 300,000 of his countrymen, many former allies.
With Amin subscribing to the mantra that you keep your friends close, your enemies closer and generally kill them all anyway, it’s not a good time to be, say, a young, naïve Scottish doctor trying to appease an unpredictable, dangerous leader. While Amin did have a Scottish physician, McAvoy’s character is a fictional device to show the decline of Amin’s dictatorship. It’s not always a successful mechanism, not least as Garrigan’s naivety is borderline stupidity much of the time. McAvoy just about keeps him sympathetic but it’s a close run thing sometimes.
Fortunately, Forest Whitaker is so good — and just plain terrifying — that you’ll barely notice the film’s slight shortcomings. Thanks to him, the film remains a grisly, scary and powerful experience.