“You meet violence with violence.”
Based on the novel by Giles Foden, the film The Last King of Scotland follows the choices placed before a young Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) when he is selected by Uganda’s brutal ruler, Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) to be his personal physician. The film begins with Garrigan graduating and anticipating a confining career mapped out for him by his father. Instead of joining his father’s practice, Garrigan launches off to Uganda, and he manages to arrive just as a military coup has overthrown Prime Minister Obote. General Idi Amin has installed himself as the new ruler. A series of events brings Garrigan to Amin’s attention, and Garrigan finds himself serving as Amin’s personal physician.
Over time, Garrigan becomes a great deal more than just a doctor to Amin. He becomes a confidante, and a trusted advisor. This is not an enviable position to hold, as it’s clear that Garrigan’s rise is made on the “disappearances” of others. In addition, Amin is unpredictable, explosive and paranoid.
While the film is at times fanciful, nonetheless, this is an entertaining gripping tale, and that’s mainly due to the wonderful performance from Forest Whitaker. Whitaker plays Amin’s range of behaviours–from displaying wit and charm with amused reporters–to frozen focus towards his prey. But there’s another reason this film succeeds so well, and that’s the character of Garrigan. It would have been so easy to create Garrigan as an idealist, but instead he’s amoral, and this makes the film much more interesting. When Garrigan initially arrives in Uganda, he’s sent to work at a remote hospital, and he finds himself with a British doctor and his wife, Sarah (Gillian Anderson). She asks Garrigan why he’s in Uganda, and it’s a very good question. Conditions at the hospital demand a certain sacrifice and sense of mission, and those are things Garrigan doesn’t possess. There’s the unspoken idea that Sarah doesn’t think Garrigan will last long, and she’s right. So what does Garrigan want? He’s not an idealist–usually a requirement for a self-imposed sacrifice. He’s more of a drifter, seeking experience, and of course, he gets this in abundance. Garrigan’s affluent lifestyle with Amin requires him to wear moral blinders, and Garrigan, as an amoral, largely unformed character, manages to do this very well. And there’s a sub-text when Garrigan throws in his lot with Amin. There are some seedy British government officials who pop up from time to time at various functions, and Garrigan takes an anti-British, anti-colonial stance that somehow meshes with Amin’s flagrant hatred of the British. And on this subject, Garrigan and Amin find a common ground.
Directed by Kevin MacDonald, the film includes references to real life events that occurred during Amin’s bloody rule (Entebbe, for example) and even hints indirectly at the fate of one hostage (Dora Bloch). The film possesses the tone of a Graham Greene novel, so if you’re a fan of Graham Greene, chances are you’ll enjoy The Last King of Scotland.