The Mauritanian (2021)
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Screenwriters: Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani
Starring: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley, Zachary Levi
From the moment The Mauritanian begins, there is a strong sense of being in good hands. Kevin Macdonald, back with his first drama feature following close to a decade of documentaries, directs with a smooth precision, while the three leads are each perfectly cast and carry the film through what could have been quite murky waters. Benedict Cumberbatch is suitably stoic, while Jodie Foster makes a very welcome return to our screens, Tahar Rahim proving once again that he’s one of the most subtly powerful (and arguably underrated) actors working today. All of this makes The Mauritanian feel like a solidly classic legal thriller, but the best thing about it is that this detailed feature doesn’t take long to reveal that it is so much more than that.
Based on the true story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Rahim), The Mauritanian begins a few months after the 9/11 attacks. Slahi is seen at a family celebration before he’s very quickly picked up by suits and whisked away in a car. Jumping forward a few years, we next see Slahi in a cell at Guantanamo Bay as he meets his prospective defence attorney Nancy Hollander (Foster). Slahi has been accused by the US government of recruiting agents for 9/11, but the lack of evidence against him allows Slahi to appeal for release in court. Filling out the last of the trifecta is Stuart Couch (Cumberbatch), a military lawyer and prosecutor for the government. Couch has a personal connection to the case, having been partners with one of the airline pilots killed in the attacks. As diligent a lawyer as he is, Couch is driven by the need to find someone responsible.
From the beginning it is clear that even though it is Slahi on trial, he is caught in the middle of a much bigger fight. Hollander repeatedly says she’s fighting to ‘uphold the law’; it’s imperative to her that Slahi be given a trial so that the lawless loophole that is Guantanamo can no longer elude US jurisdiction. Couch on the other hand already believes he has his man. Slahi has so many connections to various terrorist actors that he’s practically “the Al Qaeda Forrest Gump”, and Couch is gunning for justice. It’s a battle of philosophies and politics, all swirling around one quite shaken but undeniably charming man.
Each of the leads turn in formidable performances, but Rahim is the standout. Despite being reduced to only a few square feet in his jail cell, Rahim (as Mohamedou), with a few minute movements and expressions, manages to convey a far more expansive inner world. It’s mesmerising just watching him imagining something, while his voice remains soothing despite the horrors it’s describing. That’s not to say he’s not human – with the smallest twitch of an eye or shiver of his shoulders, Rahim conveys a far darker past than his affable personality suggests.
This part of his performance is crucial to the film’s success as it reveals the larger theme of redacted truth, which is The Mauritanian’s true message. Here, the film only flirts with the mystery around his guilt before pivoting to the larger injustice surrounding his incarceration. It is true that this somewhat deletes the established tension of the first act, but that was also never what the film was planning to be. Both Hollander and Couch learn a terrible lesson in the subjective nature of truth as they discover that far from being a defendant, Mohamedou is actually a witness. Having failed to provide the US with the information they wanted, Mohamedou was then tortured into confessing.
Macdonald directs the torture sequence like a horror movie and it appropriately shifts the film from entertaining thriller into a deep discomfort. Like current awards front-runner The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Steve McQueen’s Mangrove, The Mauritanian has more than enough gut punches before it’s over to keep you on the edge of your seat, or perhaps keel over in despair at the sheer scope of this legal injustice.
The Mauritanian is an excellently made film that bears no bones about its moral position; it’s less of a “rip-roaring drama” and more of a “stare open-mouthed in shock as the three leads find themselves increasingly out of their depths”. While it may rock your sense of truth and justice, The Mauritanian also introduces you to one of the most remarkable men of recent history.
Written by Jack Cameron
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