A magnetic performance from Forest Whitaker headlines this British drama about the first years in power of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. The film opens just as General Amin has obtained power through a military coup and follows his reign of terror up to the point that the colonial West awakens to the extent of his brutality and begins to push back.
Whitaker, who has won most major best-actor prizes of the awards season (including a Golden Globe) and has to be a favorite to take home his first Oscar, is magnificent, humanizing Amin without downplaying his manipulations or monstrous brutality.
But The Last King of Scotland takes the attention off Whitaker's Amin and focuses it instead on fictional Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) -- a composite of the numerous white advisers around Amin -- who flees his stern father in search of adventure and finds himself becoming Amin's personal physician.
Garrigan comes to Africa to help the rural poor but falls easily under the charms of Amin's power and personality, becoming an unwitting, willfully blind accomplice to mass murder. This makes The Last King of Scotland more about how easily idealism is corrupted by power than about Amin himself -- sort of a semi-historical, Africa-based retelling of All the King's Men. This plot device works, but it's a little off-putting to see yet another film about a black world built around a white character designed to give the film's presumed audience someone with whom to identify.
Opens Friday, January 19th, at Studio on the Square.