Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Kevin MacDonald (Touching the Void, Five Days in September) brought his first fiction feature to the Vancouver International Film Festival. The Last King of Scotland, based on a novel by Giles Foden, is a fictional account of Idi Amin’s relationship with his unlikeliest advisor, young Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan.
Introducing the film, MacDonald said it was the first to be shot entirely in Uganda, which presented logistical challenges but also the “texture of reality” he craved. Though it’s a fictional account of Amin’s reign, he claims “the weirdest, the strangest, the most bizarre things in the movie are all the truth.”
Garrigan – a fictional character loosely based on one of Amin’s real-life advisors – graduates from medical school expected to follow in the footsteps of his noble father. Instead, he spins a globe in order to pick his adventure. (“Canada!” he says. Pause. Spins again.) So randomly, ignorant of the politics of the country, he lands in the midst of a coup in Uganda.
The mission where he offers his services is desperate for his services. His colleague’s wife (Gillian Anderson) is slightly less so, and reluctantly resists the charms of the womanizing doctor. On their way back from a rally in support of the new president, they are called to the scene of an accident, where Garrigan impresses Amin with his audacity and medical skill.
Seduced by an offer he can’t refuse – palatial surroundings, a coterie of beautiful women, distance from the temptation of adultery, the ear of the president, and, incidentally, the promise that his work will aid millions of Ugandans – Garrigan becomes the president’s personal physician.
Forest Whitaker gives an astonishing performance as Idi Amin, playing him as an enormously charming man until his brutality and paranoia starts to leak through the cracks. It’s early yet for predictions, but I can’t imagine the performance that could beat him at Oscar time. Naive and largely self-absorbed, Garrigan (James McAvoy, Chronicles of Narnia) is likeable enough to capture the audience’s sympathy even as we’d like to shake some sense into him.
Like many films about Africa, The Last King of Scotland is centred on a non-African to guide us through the story, but Garrigan’s whiteness and outsiderness is very much the point. He is the token white man, a “monkey” embraced by Amin partly because of the president’s odd fascination with Scotland.
As Garrigan becomes drawn further and further into Amin’s downward spiral, and drawn closer and closer to one of Amin’s spurned wives, the audience is brought along for the ride. Initially the light and funny moments of the film overshadow the history we know must come out. We are as charmed by the engaging and disturbing movie as Garrigan is by Amin.