More fun that one might expect considering the subject matter, the first 20 minutes of Kevin Macdonald's The Last King of Scotland establishes James McAvoy's Nicholas Garrigan as a good looking, charming young rogue. Freshly graduated from medical school, he rebels against his conventional father by traveling to Uganda, where he indulges his desire for grand adventure and casual sex. Realistically embodying both the most repellent and attractive elements of his character, McAvoy evokes both sympathy and disgust in the audience, while Macdonald's expert pacing sacrifices neither momentum nor character development. It's a fascinating premise to explore how such a hedonistic youth becomes the lackey of a brutal dictator, and by the time a series of events brings Garrigan face-to-face with Idi Amin, then just beginning his rise to power, the audience clearly understands how Amin is able to so easily get the cocky doctor under his control. Basking in the attentions of a nation's leader feeds Garrigan's grand vision of himself, and grounds the events that follow in a fascinating psychological framework.
Forest Whitaker's intense performance as Amin dominates The Last King of Scotland. His ability to be simultaneously ingratiating yet ceaselessly intense keeps the viewer on edge. The intricate emotional dance performed by the two lead actors gradually builds until Garrigan realizes Amin's deadly paranoia and egomania -- forcing the doctor to recognize the worst elements within himself. They say a good way to discover what a film is about is to look at what changed between the beginning and the end. If we apply this rule to The Last King of Scotland, it would appear that Garrigan is at the center of the story. However, the very end of the film focuses on Amin's downfall rather than Garrigan's return home. This is understandable, as the fate of the authoritarian ruler and his people is too important to ignore. Also, Whitaker's towering performance demands attention -- it's hard not to fixate on his screen presence -- but the movie would need one more scene of Garrigan digesting all that has happened to him in order for the film to maximize its impact on an audience. Fortunately, the remarkable acting by both men, and the stylish directing, makes The Last King of Scotland an engaging tale of humankind succumbing to its own worst instincts.