The Mauritanian review: A compelling, complex drama
James R | On 01, Apr 2021
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Tahar Rahi, Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley
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“You want to represent the head recruiter for 9/11?” That’s the response that greets lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), who agrees to take on the work of defending Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim). The Mauritanian of the title, he was detained in Guantanamo Bay without charge for 14 years, his confessions obtained via torture. Kevin Macdonald’s film follows the trial of the prisoner – and in particular the preparations for the trial.
If that sounds like a film from 10 years ago, when Hollywood was wrangling with the fallout of the tragic attack on the Twin Towers, The Mauritanian’s impact stems from the way it reminds us that this is still recent past, if not the present; Salahi was only released from Guantanamo in 2016, six years after the legal case against him fell through, and his diary of his experiences was published just the year before.
That the script by Michael Bronner, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani is based on his memoir gives you an indication of the film’s sensibilities. Foster plays Nancy with a fierce conviction for upholding the principles of the US Constitution, while a generous supporting turn from Shailene Woodley as her associate, Teri Duncan, brings heart and hope to their well-meaning campaign.
But neither of them dominate proceedings, with Benedict Cumberbatch also carrying a quiet sense of patriotic duty as Lieut-Colonel Stuart Couch, the military lawyer who gamely takes on the prosecution of Salahi as a chance for some post-9/11 justice. A central set piece sees Hollander and Couch hold a pleasant debate about the moral merits on each side – and the fact it takes place at the visitors cafe at Guantanamo is a witty, telling detail.
As their respective investigations continue, ploughing through an endless pile of paperwork – most of it redacted – it becomes clear just how cruelly mistreated Salahi was by the Guantanamo interrogators. At the same time as they come to terms with this, director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) depicts those brutal scenes of torment for us with a horribly painful immediacy; it becomes impossible not to be invested in his determined resilience to survive and remain sane.
A film in which everyone involved is a proverbial good guy might seem like an undramatic affair, but that’s why The Mauritanian works. In another movie, Nancy might be our hero with a white saviour’s righteous sense of purpose, but here, she’s just one of a number of people caught up in a messy web of wrongdoings.
At the heart of it is Tahar Rahim (A Prophet), who delivers a sublime performance. He plays the prisoner with a compelling charisma, a subtle intelligence, a moving vulnerability and, at times, a winning, playful positivity. He’s not an angry or resentful person, he’s just a person, flawed, complex and sympathetic – not the kind to deliver a rousing, grandstanding speech, and that sets the barometer for The Mauritanian’s tone; this is a story that embraces the shades of grey at the heart of the situation, rather than attempt to simplify them. Footage of Salahi plays powerfully over the end credits, which reminds us just how recent his release was.
The Mauritanian is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.