Dir: Kevin Macdonald. UK. 2006. 121mins.
Kevin Macdonald has proved himself to be an expertdocumentary film-maker with films like OneDay In September and in his last feature Touching The Void he melded documentaryand drama into a heart-stopping narrative. Now, in his first dramatic feature,he tells a fictional story against the real-life backdrop of Idi Amin's barbaric regime inUganda. As based on the novel by Giles Foden, The Last King OfScotland is a compelling, well-made film but the fact that it is more fablethan real life story will soften its impact with critics and audiences.
Like any historical novelwhich invents a character at the heart of the political drama, Foden dreamed up Nicholas Garrigan,a young Scottish doctor on a Ugandan medical mission who inadvertently becomesentangled with Amin, is appointed his personalphysician and becomes his closest confidante.
The film, which plays atTelluride and Toronto this week, is a curious blend of styles, as reflects Garrigan's journey. It starts jauntily as the young Scotspreads his wings in Africa and sows his wild oats, swiftly moves into aportrait of Amin the charming dictator and thenspeeds up into the horror zone of KillingFields and Hotel Rwandaterritory.
Quite how it will perform atthe box office is anybody's guess. The elliptical title will confuse arthouse audiences and reviews, while positive, might notbe strong enough to bring them out. It is unlikely to catch fire like Hotel Rwanda, which finally grossed$23.5m in the US, thanks in part to some major Oscar nominations.
Macdonald is certainlyskilled as a storyteller and he is helped immeasurably in keeping the differentmoods of the piece coherent by his lead actor James McAvoy.The 26-year-old Scot, who is also in Penelopeand Starter For Ten at Toronto thisyear, as well as Becoming Jane and Atonement next year, is brash,charismatic and sexy as Garrigan and he has notrouble carrying the film, a blessing for the film-makers since he is invirtually every scene. It's a breakthrough performance which confirms McAvoy - already on the Hollywood radar after playing Mr Tumnus in TheChronicles Of Narnia -as an actor who possesses the same dynamism of fellow Scot EwanMcGregor.
Garrigan goes to Uganda in 1971 to escape the stifling careerpressures imposed on him by his austere Presbyterian family. He joins a medicalmission run by a good-hearted doctor and his wife Sarah (Anderson, sporting aflawless English accent), and sets about seducing Sarah.
However, his time at themission is cut short when he and Sarah are summoned to the aid of General Amin (Whitaker), who has just seized power in a militarycoup, and who has been involved in a road accident. Amintakes to Garrigan, especially since he loves allthings Scottish (he would eventually crown himself King OfScotland) and later summons him to Kampala where he asks him to be his personaldoctor.
Although Garriganrefuses the job at first, it soon becomes clear that he has no choice but tostay. Still he is not unhappy, with all the perks and luxuries his new positionentails and he is enthralled by Amin's good humourand supposed grand plans for Uganda.
The middle section of thefilm details Garrigan's gradual awakening to Amin's tyrannical and murderous activities as well as thevolatility of his personal behaviour. He is also awakened to his own naivete in embracing Amin'spersonal favours and ignoring the warnings of Sarah and the British consul (McBurney).
His gilded-cage situationworsens as his passport is confiscated, and one of Amin'swives (Washington), with whom he has unwisely engaged in an affair, ismurdered. His only escape route comes in 1976 when pro-Palestinian hijackersland an Air France passenger airliner in Uganda and Amincomes to their aid.
The film's key theme - howeasy it is to be unquestioningly complicit in the regime of a persuasive tyrant- is a powerful one, applicable to Idi Amin's allies as it is to those who consorted withdictators from Hitler and Stalin to Pol Pot. Amin, as played magnificently here by Whitaker, is charmpersonified, as appealing for his insecurities and fears as he is terrifyingfor them. For all its awkward blend of fact and fiction, the film's glimpseinto the soul of such a man is perhaps more germane today than it was 30 yearsago.
The film was shot in Ugandaitself and both design and cinematography are highly successful in evoking theearly 1970s period.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
20th Century Fox International
Based on the novel by Giles Foden
Anthony Dod Mantle