Forest Whitaker wins

“The Last King of Scotland”Fox Searchlight PicturesDirected by Kevin MacDonaldScreenplay by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock, based on the novel by Giles FodenStarring: Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Gillian Anderson and Simon McBurneyRated R/120 minutesOpens Feb. 2, 2007Three out of four stars

Ugandan dictator Idi Amin promised his countrymen safety, free elections and economic prosperity, but instead gave them murder and corruption.

Absorbed by paranoid, power-hungry fantasies, Amin had his regime slaughter anyone who doubted his leadership or even hinted at doubting his leadership. This included violence against specific ethnic groups, with a body count rising upward of 500,000, according to Amnesty International.

The fact that Amin could also be absolutely charming-he sure charmed the pants off the British, a nation he served under in the King’s African Rifles-only makes him more disturbing, more of a hideous enigma.

Kevin MacDonald’s “The Last King of Scotland” sees Amin through the eyes of one of those he charmed-a young Scottish doctor named Nicholas whom he recruits to be his personal physician and, eventually, his most trusted adviser.

It’s a troublesome approach. On the one hand, by putting us in Nicholas’ shoes, we share in his feelings of betrayal and fright when he discovers the vicious dictator lurking beneath Amin’s smiling, fun-loving demeanor.

On the other hand, Nicholas (played by James McAvoy) isn’t so much a three-dimensional character as he is the personification of a country’s feelings for Amin-first starry-eyed and swept away, and then horrified when the rug is pulled out from under them as the bodies start to surface.

There’s little of interest in Nicholas’ character, or perhaps he’s just upstaged by the fantastic Forest Whitaker, who commands the screen with fierce, trembling energy as Amin. When we first see him confidently loping up to the microphone for some rabblerousing, it’s easy to see how Nicholas and a great deal of the Ugandan people were fooled.

Whitaker is bewitching one moment, hobnobbing with the British and putting on the airs of a leader who has an inspiring vision, and then dangerously half-cocked the next, looking over his shoulder at those he thinks plan to deceive him. He deserves every one of the awards-season raves he’s been receiving-and if he doesn’t win the Best Actor Oscar, all the Academy members should have their ears flicked.

But back to Nicholas. While McAvoy does a fine acting job, the script (by Jeremy Brock and “The Queen” scribe Peter Morgan) saddles him with a malnourished sub-plot in which he has a fling with one of Amin’s wives. Amin’s wrath is a terrifying (and grotesque) display of the crazy lengths he’s willing to go to assert his dominance and quell his anxieties, but it also feels dramatically under-whelming because of its contrivance. Nicholas is a wholly fictional character inhabiting the world of a real-life monster, and that artificiality numbs the movie’s impact.

However, there’s no denying the impact of Whitaker’s performance. He exhibits all the complexities of Idi Amin without turning him into a simple monster. Now that’s worth Oscar gold.

“Oh, that was a funny joke. I like jokes. Because I’m jolly. Jolly, jolly, jolly.” Forest Whitaker chortles in “The Last King of Scotland.”