The Last King of Scotland

“The Last King of Scotland” is about two men who plunge themselves headlong into situations they are ill-equipped to handle. One has the excuse of being young and naive. The other’s only excuse is that he’s insane.

The crazy one is Idi Amin, the notorious Ugandan dictator who killed thousands of his countrymen in the 1970s, a tyrant who claimed he couldn’t die yet was constantly paranoid of assassins. The naive one is Nicholas Garrigan, his personal physician, a composite character based on three real-life people who interacted with Amin in the early years of his reign.

Nicholas (James McAvoy, last seen as Mr. Tumnus the faun in “The Chronicles of Narnia”) comes from a privileged, stifling family of Scottish doctors, the type who celebrate joyous occasions by smiling primly and raising tiny glasses of sherry. Desperate to use his medical training in a more interesting setting, Nicholas heads to Uganda, joining up with a team of volunteers who help the local poor with vaccinations and other medical care. He displays a sort of proud humility, eager to do some good mainly because it will make him feel good.

Just as Nicholas arrives in Uganda, General Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) stages a coup and takes control of the country, earning the support of the mostly impoverished citizens by promising new roads, schools and hospitals. Nicholas happens to meet Amin after a minor accident — it reminded me of the fable about the mouse removing a thorn from the lion’s paw — and Amin asks him to leave the volunteer group and become his personal physician. The general is impressed by Dr. Garrigan’s frankness and decisiveness. Others who have dealt with Nicholas, like the good Sarah Merrit (Gillian Anderson) back with the volunteers, might say “brashness” and “impulsiveness.”

Like most of the world, Nicholas is intoxicated by Amin’s charm and power, and what could be more awesome for a cocky young doctor than being a president’s personal physician? Humanitarian work is nice and all, but come on!

Nicholas soon becomes something of an adviser to Amin and bears witness to the man’s intense paranoia, egotism and mania. He also slowly becomes aware of Amin’s horrific crimes: Amin is eventually believed to have killed (or ordered killed) some 300,000 of his countrymen, starting with his predecessor’s supporters and expanding from there.

The feature debut of documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald — whose “Touching the Void” and “One Day in September” are both superb — “The Last King of Scotland” is a rich, engrossing drama with a documentary sensibility to it. The camera is nearly always moving, seemingly caught up in the action, and the dark, textured colors evoke the feeling of a film made in the early ’70s.

Yet the way the film explores these two central figures, Nicholas and Amin, goes beyond simply documenting what happened. Without any theatrics or thunderous underscoring, Macdonald (working from a screenplay by Jeremy Brock, from Giles Foden’s novel) shows both men’s strengths and weaknesses. Nicholas is headstrong and bold, but he’s also callow and selfish, the way young, inexperienced people often are. And while Amin may be a homicidal despot (a fact that becomes more chillingly clear as time goes on), he’s also a charismatic leader.

The relatively unknown Scottish actor James McAvoy plays Nicholas with enough youthful naivete that, despite being reckless and selfish, the good doctor is likable, too. You get a sense of this kid being away from home for the first time, caught up in things that would be hard even for a seasoned adult to deal with, let alone a neophyte. You can say he ought to have done things differently, but if you’re honest, you can’t say you’d have done much better at his age, with his background, in that situation.

But McAvoy, while very good in the role, is eclipsed by Forest Whitaker, whose performance as Idi Amin is nothing short of riveting. Amin is a man of great contradictions, doting lavishly on some of his children while cruelly ignoring others, pleading with Nicholas to advise him one minute and angrily dismissing him as “nothing but a doctor” the next. Yet Whitaker makes every tic, nuance and eccentricity believable. We are in awe not that the character is so wildly unstable, but that Whitaker has made such a wildly unstable character seem so natural. It’s one of the top performances of the year in one of the top films of the year.

A- (2 hrs., 3 min.; R, scattered harsh profanity, some strong sexuality and partial nudity, a few gruesome images and some violence.)