He may not be king, but James McAvoy is master of all he surveys
By Michael Joyce A year ago he was a faun in Narnia. Now he s Idi Amin s personal doctor, and between that he appeared on University Challenge. After a few years knocking around on the margins of British TV (an Inspector Lynley here, a Foyle s War there)
By Michael Joyce
A year ago he was a faun in Narnia. Now he's Idi Amin's personal doctor, and between that he appeared on University Challenge.
After a few years knocking around on the margins of British TV (an Inspector Lynley here, a Foyle's War there), James McAvoy became an overnight star in 2003 when suddenly he was in all the best shows on TV - State Of Play, Shameless and Early Doors. And over in the States, he was a lead in the mini-series Children Of Dune.
After that he was just too big for TV and had to bail out of the second series of both Shameless and Early Doors to pursue movie stardom.
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Starring as Mr Tumnus in the blockbuster The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe was a big step forward and now he follows that up by co-starring alongside Forest Whitaker in The Last King Of Scotland, which is released this week.
The film is a first dramatic feature by the British director Kevin MacDonald, best known for his brilliant documentary features One Day In September (about the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics) and mountaineering epic Touching The Void.
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It has been adapted from Giles Foden's novel of the same title by scribe of the moment Peter Morgan (The Queen at the cinema, Frost/Nixon at the theatre, Longford on TV) and Highgate's own Jeremy Brock, who made his directorial debut this year with his autobiographical feature Driving Lessons.
The Last King Of Scotland portrays the relationship between the real-life dictator of Uganda in the 70s and a fictional character Nicholas Garrigan, a young Scot fresh out of medical school who, faced with the prospect of settling down as a GP in his father's dull practice, opts for a bit of adventure.
Garrigan is to some extent a composite of many real-life characters, including a British officer who became one of Amin's most trusted advisers throughout his regime, a Ugandan doctor who had an affair with one of Amin's wives, Kay, and Amin's Scottish doctor.
The doctor's way into Amin's good side is partly through a Scotland football top. Amin had a love for all things Scottish and the title The Last King Of Scotland comes from one of the honours he bestowed on himself.
For the Glasgow-born McAvoy - who now lives in Crouch End with partner Anne-Marie Duff - after years perfecting various English accents "playing a Scotsman was a new thing for me."
It's Whitaker's turn as Amin that is generating the Oscar buzz. But, if anything, it's McAvoy who has the trickier role.
Garrigan is "a protagonist who clearly is a representative of the audience but isn't a nice sympathetic heroic figure...
"You're not only playing conflict within yourself but playing the conflict against the audience as well - a conflict between what the audience expects and what they receive.
"Halfway through they start to realise the person that reflects them doesn't necessarily reflect them in a good light."
At the beginning, it is all too easy to understand his attraction to the dictator who he accepts at face value as an idealistic leader wanting to improve the lot of his people. "Amin ticks all the boxes. He wants to be sexy and dangerous and, at the same time, he wants to be empowered by it."
It's a difficult balancing act. "My biggest challenge was that I'd be able to portray a character that was a protagonist and yet you felt empathy towards but not necessarily sympathy towards. He was a representation of a westerner who wasn't evil but was destructive."
Part of the appeal of the role was to correct the usual movie view of the westerner in Africa.
"I've seen a lot of films with the westerner in Africa as a hero and I'm sure there are westerners in Africa doing really, really good things, being selfless. But, if you look at our history in the region over the last 100 or 200 years, it certainly hasn't been selfless."
Some viewers may have reservations about the use of a fictional character in a story about true events. But McAvoy defends this choice.
"The film does something through that composite character which you couldn't necessarily do with a real character. You have a character representing the way I think the British public saw Amin at the time .... A badly constructed fantasy of what an African man and African nation should be."
Though the film isn't as bloodthirsty as the period of history it documents, it does contain a wince-making torture scene. Most of the effect is achieved through suggestion. There's only 12 seconds of actual violence but I found it a tough watch. And it sounds like it was even tougher to make.
It was filmed on the day of the London tube and bus bombings and lots of the crew filming on location in Uganda were worried about friends and family in London who they were unable to contact. "It was a weird day," McAvoy says, with a look that it was a memory he didn't want to dwell on.
Speaking on the day The Last King Of Scotland opens the London Film Festival, McAvoy has come off a weekend when the papers were proclaiming him as the Next Big Thing.
He remains "healthily sceptical" about all the positive coverage, knowing that they can stop saying nice things at any time. Asked about being called the new Albert Finney, he replies he is sure "he'll be turning in his grave", before realising that, of course, Finney is very much still with us.
McAvoy has a big year ahead of him with a number of major releases set to test his reputation.
Alongside Penelope and an adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement, there's a Jane Austen biopic Becoming Jane, where his role seems to have many parallels with Ewan McGregor's part in the Beatrix Potter film Miss Potter.
Already been and gone though was Starter For Ten, a lovely British comedy that got great reviews and attracted next to no audience.
In retrospect, I suppose a film about a student who wants to be on University Challenge was always going to be handicapped at the British box office. But its failure was an abrupt signal that his assent to stardom wasn't quite the unhindered shinning path some of us predicted. In which case, the future may test his commitment to his statement: "I really enjoy doing my job. If it stops tomorrow I cannot grumble. I've had such a good run at it.... [I could] always go back to Sainsbury's.