Set in 1970s Uganda and forgoing all the typical Hollywood fodder such a setting might dictate, “The Last King of Scotland” considers the true story of dictator Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker, “Ghost Dog”) and his regime, fictionalized through the lens of his personal physician, a Scotsman named Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy, “The Chronicles of Narnia”). The film opens in Garrigan’s native country just after his graduation from med school, where the young doctor agonizes over the prospect of a stifling future partnered in country medicine with his father. He sits in the bedroom of his parents’ house, chain smoking and spinning his grade-school globe, preparing to move to the first nation on which his index finger lands.

Steven Neff
Forest Whitaker confronts a fresh-faced Scot in “The Last King of Scotland,” an emotionally brutal experience. (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight)

Cut to a crowded bus in a Ugandan village. Garrigan begins his work in a small town caring for the young and elderly, working with another British doctor and chatting up his colleague’s wife on days off. Just a few days into this position, Garrigan has a chance encounter with the country’s new president, who’s been injured on the campaign trail. The doctor makes an immediate impression on President Amin – a man with a particular affinity for the Scottish.

The next morning, the presidential car rolls up to Garrigan’s lodgings, requesting the doctor’s presence for a medical consult in the capital city. Upon discovering the true motive behind Amin’s call, and with very little hesitation because of his previous obligations, Garrigan accepts Amin’s application and becomes (just one week after his arrival in the country) the personal physician to the president and his family.

“The Last King of Scotland” is perfectly paced, well written and cast, but most importantly, it features an honest portrayal of the relationship between Garrigan and Amin. The narrative renders the evolution of each character in brilliant equal-and-opposite fashion. While the truth of Amin’s military conquests begins to seep into Garrigan’s consciousness, the doctor gets greedy, clutching to the limelight and prestige, however impossible it becomes to deny the harm he is causing himself and the nation.

Garrigan’s character unfolds beautifully, and McAvoy delivers a stunning performance in a role loosely based on the dictator’s actual physician and close friend. The doctor is not merely a layered projection of truth, but the man in his entirety – in all his bravery, insecurity, foolishness, charm and, by the end, wretchedness.

Symbols of the character’s evolution follow him through the piece. The film’s first shot stages Garrigan and his classmates running down a dock and jumping into the North Sea in loose white-cotton underwear and graduation caps. An hour later, deeply and inextricably woven into the core of Amin’s administration, Garrigan attends a posh pool party in tight black briefs. The first scene is filmed against the setting sun, with the lush braes of the highlands rising the background, while the second takes place at a private swimming area made all of concrete, the scene faded out in a bland wash of stony color.

These figurative constructions of Garrigan’s character remain consistent with his dress, the musical progression of the film’s soundtrack and its cinematography. But where President Amin is concerned, we rarely see him out of military uniform. His is a slow transformation, not of the character evolving through experiences, but of the slow revelation of his true nature. Whitaker takes an iconic madman – a cultural portrait of “evil incarnate,” as the actor said in a recent interview – and gives him a human depth a narrower portrait could not afford.

The film is so effective because the point is not the historical message or a political statement, but the honest, well-explored story of the two men. You would not expect a movie like “The Last King of Scotland” to be such an intensely emotional ordeal, but it will turn you on, make you laugh, frighten you. There are few features with the power to shake an audience so unsparingly, and this movie is the real deal.

4 and a half out of 5 stars

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