Forest Whitaker as Idi Ami
James McAvoy as Nicholas Garrigan
Kerry Washington as Kay Amin
Simon McBurney as Nigel Stone
Gillian Anderson as Sara Zach
Adam Kotz as Dr. Merrit
David Oyelowo as Dr. Junju
Abby Mukiibi as Masanga
Stephen Rwangyezi as Jonah Wasswa
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
With a masterfully skewed twist on “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” this historical biopic is notable not only for Forest Whitaker’s amazing portrayal of Idi Amin, but also for the brilliant writing and an impressive performance by James McAvoy.
Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a young Scottish doctor, travels to Uganda to work in the free clinic. Instead, he winds up becoming the personal physician, friend and confidante to the country’s new president Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), watching as the pressures of power threaten to destroy his already fragile psyche.
With more and more movies being made in and about Africa, it was only time before someone decided to make a movie about Uganda’s infamous dictator Idi Amin. Leave it to the Brits to find a way to tell Amin’s story in a way that defies the normal historical biopic like “Hotel Rwanda,” as documentary filmmaker like Kevin Macdonald (“Touching the Void”) takes inspiration from the fictionalized account in Giles Foden’s novel to tell an unforgettable dramatic tale.
After getting his PhD, Scotsman Nicholas Garrigan escapes his condescending physician father to work at a free clinic in Uganda. Shortly after arriving, he starts hearing about the country’s charismatic new leader Idi Amin, who is winning the people over by telling them what they want to hear. After a chance encounter, Nicholas reluctantly agrees to take a job as Amin’s personal physician, a job with many fringe benefits as Nicholas becomes the president’s close friend and confidante.
So begins one of the most unconventional African biopics in recent memory, as it takes a look at this fascinating historical figure through the eyes of a fictional character. It’s not exactly a new idea, but the fact that Nicholas Garrigan isn’t a real person may detract from the historical accuracy that Kevin Macdonald tries to bring to capturing the Amin of documented record. It’s only slightly bothersome when you think of it that way, because it’s an entertaining story and film nonetheless.
Knowing that you’re watching a movie about what many consider to be one of the most ruthless dictators in recent memory, you’d expect it to be a dark and violent film, almost to the point of sensationalism. Instead, there’s a certain degree of light playfulness to the way we’re introduced to Nicholas, charming the first local woman he meets into bed and then flirting with his boss’ wife (Gillian Anderson) shortly after. Amin himself shows up as a showman in soldier’s garb, and we quickly see Amin’s youthful exuberance and enthusiasm, especially when it comes to all things Scottish.
Despite the way the movie lightens things up by showing Amin in his leisure hours, carousing with women and staging massive Scottish-themed parades for himself, the movie doesn’t overlook the horrors inherent with his reign. Nicholas soon finds himself being dragged into affairs of state being asked by a British envoy to keep an eye on the leader they put into power, but Nicholas’ own conscience has him questioning the leader’s tactics and wondering if he made the right career decision. Any attempts to get out of the situation are met by resistance from his “best friend,” and soon, Nicholas is having an affair with one of Amin’s estranged wives, played by Kerry Washington. By then, we already know what a beast Amin has become, and things come to a climactic head in the middle of a Palestinian hijacking at Entebbe Airport, as Amin negotiates the release of the passengers in hopes of becoming a hero to his people again.
Needless to say, this movie would never have worked without an actor of Whitaker’s caliber portraying Idi Amin. Whitaker perfectly nails the despot’s speech patterns, his stride and his swagger, but most of all, he can change emotional gears quick enough to realize this complex individual’s way of thinking, being friendly and boisterous one minute, paranoid and sullen the next. Amin was such a great performer himself, especially when confronted by the press, which is probably why a lot of the torture and murders of his regime went unnoticed for so long. Seeing this other side of the man is quite riveting.
Overlooking James McAvoy and his equally solid performance as Nicholas will probably be the biggest tragedy of the upcoming awards season, because however you want to look at it, this movie is really about his character–living in Uganda and working for Idi Amin is only one small part of Nicholas’ life. The movie just wouldn’t have been the same if Whitaker didn’t have McAvoy to play off his performance, and the great scenes between the two actors shows the emotional complexity of their relationship. It’s pretty subtle, but our reactions to the declining situation in this foreign land are dictated by Nicholas’ own feelings, though McAvoy makes it feel as if Nicholas’ emotions are mirroring our own.
Having already mastered the art of the recreation with “Touching the Void,” Macdonald does an equally impressive job recreating the villages and cities of Uganda, as well as the look of the times. There’s a certain charm to the film’s low-fi look, using handheld cameras and muted colors presumably as an intentional homage to the movie of the ’70s. When Nicholas’ realizes how deep he’s gotten into this situation, it’s like a scene straight out of “Apocalypse Now,” and you realize how masterfully Kevin Macdonald has blended reality with cinematic storytelling to transport you back to another time and place, much like he did with his earlier documentaries.
The Bottom Line:
Anyone interested in the life and crimes of Idi Amin but not up for a dreary and violent African drama may be surprised how Forest Whitaker’s wonderfully rounded portrayal of the leader makes this a delightful experience, at least until Amin’s crazy and homicidal ways rear their head. Either way, it just wouldn’t be the same without James McAvoy providing our eyes and ears, and director Kevin Macdonald has really made his mark as a filmmaker with his first fully dramatic feature film.