Monday, January 22, 2007

The Last King of Scotland

Dr Nicholas Garrigan escapes his father’s dour presence by signing up to work in a medical station in rural Uganda. He may be treating the poor, but his motivation is adventure. He likes drink and dope and women – black or white, married or otherwise. These he finds.

He also finds, or is found by, president Idi Amin. On learning that Garrigan is Scottish, Amin takes an instant liking to the young doctor and invites him to become his personal physician.

Watching events unfold, I found myself willing the fictional doctor to run. Amin is going to turn into a monster. That is history. But in the film it is still 1971 and the signs are not yet clear.

They say that a frog dropped into scalding water will hop straight out again. But Garrigan is stepping into a pleasantly warm bath. The president seems clown-like at times, charismatic at others. He has wealth and pleasure at his disposal, some of which he bestows on his young doctor. He is strong, perhaps ruthless. But that’s what it takes to govern a newly independent country, isn’t it? The temperature rises a degree at a time.

The brilliance of this film is in the characters of Amin and Garrigan, played by Forest Whitaker and James McAvoy. The portrayal of Amin is multi-dimensional and terrifyingly believable. His relationship with Garrigan is paternalistic, domineering and corrupting. The doctor has fled from one father to be adopted by another. The dynamic between the two is mesmerising.

The insanity of what is happening in Uganda is revealed gradually as the president slides into paranoia. Towards the climax of the film, where some of the horror of what is happening is graphically revealed, Amin confronts the terrified Garrigan with the words: “This is real.”

Superlative performances and a fine script combine to make this film feel very real. It also feels close. We see the Asians being expelled from Uganda. How many of my friends and neighbours in Leicester were among those thousands, forced to leave with nothing but the clothes they were wearing? And what of the people who stayed? I remember seeing Enoch Olinga speaking at a Baha’i conference in 1976. That wonderful man was later killed in Uganda, together with his wife and three of his children, victims of unknown gunmen. No one knows the number murdered during Amin’s rule. Three hundred thousand is the figure quoted by the film.

The numbers are incomprehensible. Butchery of this kind is incomprehensible. But through the film, the tyrant is revealed as human. The steps that led to the madness are small enough to be believed. Just about. That doesn’t make this, our history, easier to cope with. But hopefully it will make it harder to forget.

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