The Last King of Scotland
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
With Forest Whitaker and James McAvoy
Rated R

Everyone’s talking about Forest Whitaker’s performance as the African dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, and that’s all right and good: Whitaker is a marvel, creating a miasma of palpable charm and magnetic might that’s utterly convincing as the means by which he could seduce a nation into following him — and then a stormcloud of sadism and psychopathy that’s horrifying as the tools with which he would ruin it. By the calculus of the Academy voters, who favor this kind of performance in this kind of movie, Whitaker’s a shoo-in for the Best Actor Oscar this year. He deserves it, too, which isn’t always the case with the Oscars: This truly is the best male performance of 2006, and if you’re the kind of moviegoer who cares about things like craft and you enjoy seeing an actor at the top of his game, you won’t want to miss this film.

But getting lost in all the well-earned love for Whitaker is his costar, James McAvoy, the primary lens through which Whitaker’s starburst prisms into its brilliance — here is another actor who will astonish you with a very different kind of performance, one far subtler, demanding a kind of mirror-image response. Ginger Rogers used to say that what she did was even harder than what her partner, Fred Astaire, did, because she had to do it backwards and in high heels. That’s kind of the position McAvoy is in, and he takes the pushing — both literal and figurative — doled out both to his character and to him as an actor, and he uses that to create a finely drawn, understated portrait of a young man whose impetuousness leads him to the hard boundaries of his own limitations and fears. McAvoy doesn’t just take what is thrown at him by the ferocious Whitaker — he catches it and makes it his own.

Maybe they should give out an Oscar to acting duos. Whitaker and McAvoy, as impressive as they are separately, are even more compelling in opposition to each other, and together they’re on a very short list of actors who’ve done that this movie year.

But what’s the film about? Based on a novel by Giles Foden that’s so pertinent it could well be true, this is the story of a young Scottish doctor, Nick Garrigan (McAvoy), who travels to Uganda in the 1970s looking for adventure and an opportunity to do some real good and finds himself swept up in the reign of terror of dictator Idi Amin. Of course, it doesn’t start out looking like a reign of terror (they rarely do). It starts out looking like a new start for the ravaged nation, and for Nick, too, when Amin, who’s a bit of a nut for all things Scottish, shanghais Nick, who’s been working at a remote country hospital, into being his personal physician. And it’s a sweet shanghaiing on Nick’s part: It’s all parties and basking in Amin’s charismatic glow for a while, and we’re as charmed as Nick is at first — until we begin the descent into horror through Nick’s dawning realization that Things Are Going Wrong, and that by the time he knows he has to extricate himself, it’s far too late, and Amin has him cornered, unable to escape.

The hints are there right away, tucked in corners — this is, ironically enough, such a delicately shaded movie, dramatically speaking, for all that it’s about such an awful man and the power he wielded over even the best-intentioned of people. There’s a threat in the moment when Amin bestows upon Nick a Ugandan passport — the implication is that Nick will not be seeing his Scottish passport again. There are layers of paradox in a line Nick delivers, late in the film, when he attempts to convince himself that he’s been right to let increasingly terrible things go by him uncommented upon: “I’m his doctor. It’s not my job to judge the man.”

The guys behind the camera are as deserving of high praise as those in front: Screenwriter Peter Morgan also wrote the equally astonishing The Queen, and director Kevin Macdonald made the riveting “dramatized documentary” Touching the Void. Morgan and Macdonald are at the top of their games, too, and they’ve made one of the don’t-you-dare-miss-it films of the year.