But Kevin Macdonald’s debut fiction feature, as partly scripted by faction scribe du jour Peter Morgan (‘The Queen’), is the first to enjoy the benefit of reflection and hindsight and, importantly, to be made in Uganda. It’s a wise decision that allows cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle – who shoots partly on colour-rich 16mm – to make the most of the country’s period architecture, red soils, lush vegetation and local extras, lending the film a welcome lack of distance or classical sombreness.
What emerges is a curious, not wholly successful but still smartly conceived blend of fact and fiction – as first imagined by the source novelist Giles Foden. We begin in Scotland in 1971, where the entirely made-up Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) has graduated with a medical degree and spins a globe to plan his escape from a life as a suburban Scottish GP. He – or luck – opts for Uganda where, as fate would have it, Amin assumes power soon after Garrigan’s arrival and an encounter between the two men allows the young Scot the opportunity to become personal physician to the president. It’s a job he accepts with the sort of blank, excitable grin that becomes more annoying the more McAvoy sports it: his incredulity itself is incredulous. Surely ‘as green as a Garrigan’ must now enter the lexicon as a by-phrase for chronic naivety?
We’re used to being led through African stories by white hands, like European or American tourists on safari: John Hurt did the job in ‘Shooting Dogs’; Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes assumed the honour in ‘The Constant Gardener’; and, next month, Leonardo DiCaprio will do the same in ‘Blood Diamond’. Thankfully the same device here offers something more than a safe path through unfamiliar territory. Amin had aspirations towards a perverted idea of Britishness; British journalists indulged the humour in Amin’s charming behaviour; and Amin even employed a British businessman, Bob Astles, as a close adviser. In that sense, the character of Garrigan, who fucks and fiddles while Kampala burns, is a clever device that implicates our enjoyment of Whitaker’s performance and of Idi’s playboy home life – the parties, the 1970s gear, the bluesy music – with the sinister real reasons for the smoke that billows on the horizon. True violence only comes very late, but when it arrives it’s stark and unrestrained, and focused intensely on two gruesome incidents that have enormous power.
Still, Garrigan’s naivety, reckless enjoyment of the spoils of an ill state and late awakening to the truth about Amin are sometimes hard to swallow. It’s the wily, whispered chats of a British foreign office stooge played superbly by a noxious Simon McBurney that are more sinister and instructive of the tightrope walked by Europeans in 1970s Uganda. It’s a shame, too, that the brutal power of Whitaker’s performance is allowed to fade away in the film’s closing moments in favour of a not-very-thrilling escape sequence where all the emphasis is on Garrigan rather than Amin or Uganda. That said, Macdonald’s first attempt at drama after the documentaries ‘One Day in September’ and ‘Touching the Void’ must mostly be considered a rousing success – and Whitaker’s performance alone is a triumph.