“The Last King of Scotland” is not based on a true story. It was inspired by “true” events, which leaves more room for invention. Based on the 1998 novel by Giles Foden, it’s the story of a young Scottish doctor who in 1971 signs up with the British Ministry of Health to work in a remote Ugandan village and winds up living the high life in Kampala, clutched to the turbulent bosom of Gen. Idi Amin.
The story is as strange and gripping as it sounds, and the suggestion that the doctor might be real adds a not inconsiderable holy-Moses factor. It’s a bit of a letdown to discover the events depicted are only partially factual. Amin, of course, was real, as was his jokey, buffoonish charm, his brutal slaying of nearly 300,000 people and his kitschy love of all things Scottish. (Throwing fear of ridicule to the wind, he saddled four of his sons with the names McKenzie, Campbell, McLaren and Mackintosh and once declared himself the last king of Scotland.)
The general is played by Forest Whitaker, an actor whose sweet and jovial features counteract his imposing physique and vice versa, creating a curious tension that he fully exploits here. Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), however, is fictional -- though he did have a kind of real-life counterpart in a former British soldier named Bob Astles, who became one of Amin’s closest advisors and was known in the British press as “Amin’s white rat.” Nicholas -- who is young, reckless and very handsome -- is more aptly referred to as “Amin’s white monkey,” though he doesn’t find this out until much later, after insult has positively paled next to injury. Still, it hurts. Fresh out of medical school and reluctant to settle down to a life of stew, sherry and Presbyterianism, he has fled Scotland in search of adventure in Africa, and it takes only a passing familiarity with the literature of post-colonialism to guess what he’s in for.
Nicholas’ groovy bop into the heart of darkness happens by accident. Arriving in Uganda on the very day of Amin’s coup, he is met by Sarah (Gillian Anderson), the lonely, tousled wife of the only other doctor in town. Sarah represents just the sort of trouble Nicholas is drawn to -- mysterious, complex and none of his business, and his attraction foreshadows a yet more reckless dalliance. When Amin comes to the village to give a speech, Nicholas persuades the reluctant Sarah to come with him
Things take an unexpected turn when soon after the rally Nicholas and Sarah are pulled over on the road by a soldier. Amin has been in a car accident. When Nicholas and Sarah arrive at the scene, they find a wrecked Maserati, a dying cow and a newly installed despot with a sprained hand. Nicholas takes command of the situation, and a few days later he is summoned and offered the job of being Amin’s personal physician. Soon he’s installed in a swanky apartment, hanging out in nightclubs and speeding around in a Mercedes convertible. Shot on location in Scotland and Uganda, the film shows a side of Africa rarely depicted in the movies. Kampala’s bustling energy and striking midcentury architecture reflect Nicholas’ youthful optimism. But as the movie progresses, the streets become cast in an oppressive hush, and the beautiful, futuristic buildings start to look like symbols of the dangers of scorched-earth reinvention.
Nicholas breezily rejects the dull security of home and smugly dismisses Stone (Simon McBurney), one of the shadowy British spooks responsible for installing Amin in power and now lurking around Kampala warily trying to take their puppet’s temperature with Nicholas as their personal thermometer. But none of this masks the fact that for all his puppyish charisma, Nicholas is just another white man on the make in Africa, fooling no one but himself. His vanity, idealism and lust for adventure make him especially vulnerable to Amin’s insidious charm. And Nicholas willfully ignores early signs of trouble, the better to bask in his new role as the dictator’s best friend and confidant, choosing to believe he is helping usher Uganda into its new iteration as a free black African nation.
Working from a script by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock, director Kevin Macdonald, whose previous films “One Day in September” and “Touching the Void” touch on similar themes, captures the energy and exuberance of a young nation in the throes of optimism and works it into a foreboding frenzy. Where there is traditional music and dancing on-screen, there’s also a feverish sense of dread that mounts until you start wondering whose eye-view, exactly, you’re meant to be peering through. Mostly it’s Nicholas’, though you get the feeling that Stone and his friends are taking in pretty much the same view.
Whitaker plunges deep into the psychology of the role, portraying Amin as an erratic personality whose charisma and sociability -- first-rate survival mechanisms -- mask a deep-seated insecurity, searing resentment of foreigners and a galloping paranoia. Amin’s bizarre personality was in many ways the product of an impoverished childhood in an occupied nation. Abandoned by his father, he eventually went to work for the British army, where he cleaned, cooked and joined the rugby team. It was there his fondness for Scotland bloomed, though the Scots he so admired allegedly got him riled up for matches by hitting him on the head with a hammer. His love of Nicholas is as fetishistic as it is conflicted, and all that is unresolved about Amin’s strange fascination seems to spark a regression once he’s in power, from affable wild card to violent, petulant child. Nicholas, of course, is a child as well, focused on his own thoughtless gratification. In one scene, his second illicit lover reminds him what they face if they’re caught. He listens, then laughs. He’s just imagined them back home in Edinburgh, at the dinner table with his parents. For all his veneer of “civilization,” it’s his blinkered narcissism that makes Nicholas so savagely dangerous to others.
‘The Last King of Scotland’
MPAA rating: R for some strong violence and gruesome images, sexual content and language
A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Director Kevin Macdonald. Screenplay Peter Morgan, Jeremy Brock. Based on the novel by Giles Foden. Producers Andrea Calderwood, Lisa Bryer, Charles Steel. Director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle. Editor Justine Wright. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.
In general release.