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The Last King of Scotland

July 31, 2007

A young Scotsman, Nicholas Garrigan (a flawed, gauche and intense James McAvoy) graduates from medical school in 1970 and, terrified of adopting his doctor father’s comfortable tweeds and homely tedium, heads off to Uganda to help a desperately poor country with his new-found skills. There, he meets the staff of a British medical mission and tries to ‘make a difference’.

His arrival in a village just outside Kampala coincides with the coup that leads to President Obote’s overthrow and Idi Amin’s brutal and bloody ascendancy to power. After a freak road accident, he treats the new President for a minor injury and impresses him with his forthright approach. Amin (Forest Whitaker) takes a liking to the young man and begins to draw him ever closer into his private circle of influence.

At first defending the man against a carping, snidey British consulate, Garrigan feels that Amin is bringing verve and drive to a land that has only ever known despair and poverty, but eventually all that changes. Made Amin’s private physician, he witnesses beatings, then kidnappings, then assassinations and ultimately much, much worse.

This is an extraordinary film. It is at once colourful, funny, passionate, musical, intelligent, frightening and very very powerful. James McAvoy deserves all the plaudits that come his way, but he has the huge misfortune of sharing the screen with Forest Whitaker. McAvoy’s turn should be career-defining, but this is Whitaker’s film. He is simply astonishing in the role, more than astonishing in fact; he’s stupendous, startling, miraculous…whenever he turns up (and his first appearance is as blow-away stunning as I’ve ever seen in any film) you cannot take your eyes off him…

…unless, of course, you’re hiding behind your hands.

He’s a great, hulking, bouncy castle of a man, full of terror and jollity, veering wildly from sociopathy to silliness in one bound. But, god, so mesmerising. There has always been something charming and hypnotic about really evil people, and Whitaker gets that from the start. If he doesn’t win a skipful of gongs for this then there is no justice in the world. It’s the best screen performance I’ve seen in years.

Brilliant.

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