The Mauritanian


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Benedict Cumberbatch as Stuart Couch in The Mauritanian
"Despite Rahim's excellent work, the real standout here is Benedict Cumberbatch." | Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

Around the world, the vast majority of people are strongly opposed to the continuing existence of the US detention facilities in Guantánamo Bay. In the US, however, polls have continually shown strong public support for it. This is probably what dissuaded Barack Obama from closing it down when he took office in 2009 and it may yet dissuade Joe Biden, who has expressed similar intentions. Despite that support, however, most US citizens now acknowledge that it practises torture. This is in significant part thanks to Mohamedou Ould Salahi, whose memoir, Guantánamo Diary, described his experiences during the 14 years that he spent there without trial. In The Mauritanian, Kevin Macdonald sets out to tell his story and that of the legal battle for his release.

Long and complicated as the story is, it's difficult to condense into an audience-friendly format, and sometimes Michael Bronner's script simplifies too much. it's hard to imagine that Nancy Hollander (played here by Jodie Foster), a lawyer with a formidable reputation, would initially see the case of the prisoner she's asked to represent in the dogmatic terms suggested here, or that her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) would be as quickly won over by him. These shortcomings aside, however, the narrative is well constructed and manages to get to the heart of the matter without too much direct depiction of torture or other abuses. The environment of the detention facility itself is well constructed and there's a good deal of nuance to the human interactions that we see within it, with Mohamedou on good terms with many of the guards. Flashbacks to his youth tell us something about where he came from and, without going into too much detail, convey enough to help us understand why the US found him suspicious whilst leaving plenty of room for alternative interpretations of his behaviour.

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What really elevate the film are the performances. Ever since he burst onto the scene in 2009's A Prophet, Tahar Rahim has stood out as one of the great talents of his generation, and here, in his first major English language role, he doesn't disappoint. Clips of the real Mohamedou at the end make it clear just how close he got to capturing his personality, but this is more than impression, it's a performance which holds the film together, vulnerable yet full of energy. It's the opposite of what one would expect of a long term detainee, but it makes sense, and gives the film moments of humour and joy alongside the inevitable horror.

Despite Rahim's excellent work, however, the real standout here is Benedict Cumberbatch as right wing military lawyer Stuart Couch, personally bereaved during the 9/11 attacks and called upon to bring a case against Mohamedou, whom he is assured bears some of the responsibility for them. Whilst this storyline is largely separate from the rest of the action and runs a little awkwardly alongside it, it makes up the most interesting part of the film - there are any number of movies out there about noble liberal lawyers going all out to defend innocent men, so it's refreshing to see one which makes a right wing case for considering that he might be innocent: that the integrity of the justice system matters, and that taking vengeance on the wrong man leaves the actual guilty party still at large. Cumberbatch immerses himself in his character and presents a compelling portrait of a man who, as he begins to uncover what's really going on, feels torn between his duty to his superiors and his duty to the truth.

With Foster also on good form, The Mauritanian is highly watchable throughout. Its occasional clumsiness can be pardoned in light of its successes and it's a bold effort to explore in fiction an environment that has already been the subject of several documentaries. If you're a fan of Cumberbatch or Rahim, you can't afford to miss it.

Reviewed on: 26 Feb 2021
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The Mauritanian packshot
A detainee at the US military's Guantanamo Bay detention centre is held without charges for over a decade and seeks help from a defence attorney for his release.
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Director: Kevin Macdonald

Writer: Michael Bronner

Starring: Tahar Rahim, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Levi, Jodie Foster

Year: 2021

Runtime: 129 minutes

Country: UK, US


Glasgow 2021
BIFF 2021

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