Evil has a face. And it belongs to Forest Whitaker. Big, cuddly Forest Whitaker. An actor so admired and well-respected and so memorable often as a friendly dope that Last King’s unlikeliest coup is its casting. It’s like asking Keanu Reeves to play Hitler... and then seeing The One deliver a soulful, troubling portrait of malignant lunacy. Banish any memories of Whitaker’s Oinglish accent in The Crying Game as here, you don’t see the seams. It’s a performance that justifies the Method, with reports indicating the actor lived the role 24/7 (minus the rampant, genocidal butchery). If enough Academy members see the picture, he’s nailed on for the gong.
Less likely to receive such attention and acclaim, but no less worthy, is McAvoy. Sure, Whitaker has a challenge – to lend dimension and emotion to a despotic mass murderer who once entranced the world’s media with his eccentricity and charm. But McAvoy has to make you care about a med school graduate. Really, Garrigan is a little shit; arriving in Uganda on a cocky, groin-centred quest, he’s seduced a bus passenger within the opening credits, and then sets about trying to woo his employer’s wounded wife (an understated, affecting Gillian Anderson). When Amin wants a personal physician, the young Scot hesitates, but then opts in. He doesn’t give a hoot about what’s right, but what’s easy.
Amin’s evil is rooted in the rotten remnants of Empire, his charisma initially blinding the viewer as much as it does Garrigan. But even as the young opportunist turns a blind eye for far too long (until he’s in way too deep), McAvoy keeps the audience onside. We recognise ourselves – as well as, in a steady but subtle subtext, the invidious arrogance of imperialism – in the angelic-looking amorality of an antihero on the ride of his life. Last King kicks around the brain for long after viewing, troubling because it asks, “Well, what exactly would you do?” It’s historically charged fiction rather than the painstaking reconstruction of director Kevin Macdonald’s Touching The Void, but the demands of making a seat-edge-shredding thriller rarely impinge on the sense of truth.
Staging the wince-inducing climax in the real-life setting of the Entebbe hostage crisis is a dare which pays off, compensating for a slightly forced build-up to the final act, which feels like a self-conscious attempt to inject thriller thrills where dramatic tension would suffice. This is a minor gripe in what is a major work, though, with Macdonald putting himself in the front rank of important filmmakers – British or otherwise.