THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND directed by Kevin Macdonald, with Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy and Kerry Washington. A Fox SearchLight release. 121 minutes. Opens Friday (October 6). For venues and times, see Movies, page 97. Rating: NNN
James McAvoy looks like he's got dark secrets. In person, he resembles a younger, thinner (and less volatile) Russell Crowe, with a friendly Scots accent instead of a friendly Aussie one.
But those eyes suggest sleepless nights and a troubled conscience. He's got demons. No wonder he was so effective as Mr. Tumnus, the nervous faun in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe.
In that Narnia tale, he was a reluctant helper of the White Witch. In The Last King Of Scotland, he plays yet another distressed aide to evil as the personal physician of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Coincidence?
"I love conflict in a character," says McAvoy, lounging on a hotel sofa during the film's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. "When you've got a character with a conflict in himself, you've got a psychological story to tell rather than just a situation. Things easily grow from there."
McAvoy's done fine work in films like Rory O'Shea Was Here and Bright Young Things, but his impressive turn in the sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated Last King should put him on the map.
Garrigan, a fictional composite, is a lowly medical aid worker seduced by the charismatic Amin's fatherly charm. He agrees to become his doctor and later his confidant, unaware of what the leader might be doing when he's not around.
Amin, of course, was one the late 20th century's most brutal leaders. Initially elected as a politician of the people, he left a trail of assassinated corpses in his path during the 1970s. Through Garrigan - and Forest Whitaker's intense performance - we see the man behind the megalomania, the Mephistopheles who entices Faust.
"Amin was incredibly good at making people around him feel better than they are," says McAvoy. "So when Nicholas meets Amin he's gratified, he feels important."
Whitaker remained in character throughout the filming, so McAvoy never got to bond with him off camera.
"I didn't know at the time that he was in character," admits the actor. "I didn't want to ask him about his method, because if you are in character all the time you don't need somebody asking 'So how do you do this?' His response would have been, 'Well, I'm doing it. So fuck off!''
Whitaker's absence from the set changed the atmosphere for the entire crew.
"Everybody would be having a good time, and then Forest would come on as Amin and everyone's shoulders would tense up."
The film also made McAvoy think about the nature of good and evil.
"The highest state of being is selflessness and empathy, the ability to understand someone else," he says. "The opposite of that is selfishness. Nicholas, too, is incredibly selfish. He does bad things out of vanity and ego."
McAvoy's not in the next Narnia film, but he's okay with that.
"Actually, I'm gutted," he says. "I love those books. But I'm glad that they're showing integrity and not messing with the narratives and sticking me in because I was in the first one."
Still, it's not like he needs the work. He had three films at TIFF - the coming-of-age drama Starter For Ten and the modern fairy tale Penelope were the others - and he's just finished the lead in Atonement, based on Ian McEwen's award-winning novel.
Will he succumb, like so many of his characters, to the temptations and seductions of the film business? Can he avoid a Colin Farrell-style burnout?
"Oh yeah, go get fucked up and take all sorts of drugs," he laughs. "After all this and a couple of premieres, I'm going away for ages. I'm not going to work again till March.
"I won't even be around when they all come out."
THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (Kevin Macdonald) Rating: NNN
The Last King Of Scotland is a political thriller and Faust parable set during the bloody reign of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker).
Naive Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) gets lured into becoming Amin's personal physician and adviser, realizing too late that his boss has anger management issues.
The film is based on Giles Foden's "fact-inspired" novel, and it takes lots of historical liberties. Some of them create great suspense; others seem melodramatic. Above all, it's a study in point of view, with McAvoy's impressionable doctor slow to realize the cost of the bargain he's accepted.
Anthony Dod Mantle's athletic camera work makes the African landscape and dialogue immediate. Scenes crackle with menace, especially when Whitaker - in the role of a lifetime - fills up the screen.