James McAvoy? So
hot right now. There are quite literally a hundred female casting agents out there with damp crotches and dollar signs where their pupils should be. Having lit up the small screen in Channel 4's Shameless, fought poorly costumed evil in the Chronicles of Narnia as the cloven-hooved Mr. Tumnus and been universally challenged in last year's Starter For Ten, the young Brit has become something of a box-office draw of late - sort of like a Hugh Grant without the stutter, annoying fringe and insufferable smugness. In The Last King Of Scotland, he faces his biggest challenge yet - acting in Forest Whitaker's not inconsiderable shadow in this semi-fictional account of one of history's greatest monsters, the Ugandan despot Idi Amin.
McAvoy plays Nicholas Garrigan, a cocky and headstrong young Scot, who having graduated from medical school, picks a random spot on the globe and finds himself tending to the locals at a Ugandan relief centre during a rocky period in the country's political history. After a chance encounter with the newly-installed president after a rally, Garrigan is amazed to discover first-hand Amin's fondness for the Scots (except their ginger hair) and is reluctantly appointed as Idi's own personal physician. Endeared to his childlike ways and clueless of his strong-arm political tactics, life on the Amin estate is peachy; it's not until it's too late that Nicholas realises he's been taken under the wing of a monster and escape is not exactly going to be easy.
There's been Oscar buzz a-plenty for both male leads, and for once, the hype is justified. McAvoy takes great delight in crafting an unsympathetic character swaddled in the arrogance of youth, playing Garridan as a political dunce with a rampant sex drive - he's sampling local delights within minutes of his arrival and wastes little time in gunning for Gillian Anderson's married doctor. Whooping and cheering at Amin's public inauguration like he's watching a band at Glastonbury, little does he know he's witnessing the birth of one of the most despicable dictators of recent history. Once Nicholas gets wise to the Ugandan Ogre's ways, the smile leaves his face, and with good reason - Whitaker's Amin cuts an incredibly imposing figure, capable of switching from his public persona of 'jolly fat man' to a snarling primal animal behind closed doors in a second. Whitaker really nails what made Amin terrifying - labelled a cannibal, an ogre and a madman by the media at the time (Richard Nixon famously said Amin would "eat his own mother"), it was his unpredictable nature that made such a complex beast out of such a simple man. As a terrified Garrigan puts it himself: "You're a child... that's why you're so fucking scary."
Although The Last King Of Scotland is often very serious in tone - you kinda have to be regarding stories of genocide and murder - there's still a streak of black humour a mile wide running right through it. One scene sees the young doctor called urgently to Amin's presidential bedroom only to discover the big man is suffering from a nasty case of wind - Idi's post-guff giggle is the kind a schoolboy emits having just let off in class. A trembling Garrigan enters Amin's home to inform him of his desire to leave, only to be faced with a body double - the real Idi enters stage left a few seconds later, helpless with laughter at his brilliant joke. Garrigan, meanwhile, is filling his pants. The balance between comedy and drama is a delicate one to strike, but it's largely due to the magnetic performance of Whitaker that it succeeds; he's able to deflate even the tensest of situations with that broad smile and a few gutteral grunts.
If director Kevin McDonald (of Touching The Void fame) chose wisely in casting his two leads, then he struck gold when he was granted access to shoot in Uganda - The Last King Of Scotland is the first Western film to shoot there in over 50 years. Expect another Oscar nod for the cinematography; an intoxicating blend of earthy browns and lush greens set against a backdrop of a blood red sun, it's quite simply a stunningly pretty film, and together with the wonderfully jaunty traditional music, it's a feast for the senses. Even the jutting, awkward African architecture of capital city Kampala feels right - a modern city that towers above the jungles and sandy plains beneath - and it's captured beautifully down to the very last lingering shot.
Gripping throughout, The Last King Of Scotland will no doubt be picking up an armful of gongs come award season, and rightly so; it's not only lovingly shot and acted, but it evolves into one of the best thrillers of recent memory too. The only stumble McDonald makes is not giving Garrigan much in the way of a back story - for a man to show such a blatant death wish with little to no explanation is a bit much to swallow, especially when his wish is nearly granted. Nonetheless, it's a finely crafted film with much to recommend: even those with the political knowledge of a fence post will find themselves enraptured from beginning to end. The best film of 2007 so far without a doubt.