The Mauritanian | Review | Glasgow Film Festival | ★★★★★
A mesmeric performance from Tahar Rahim, and Jodie Foster at her captivating best, drive this powerful, must-see legal drama exposing the inhumanity of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
Tahar Rahim, most recently seen in the BBC drama The Serpent, cements his leading role credentials in this impactful, eye-opening adaptation of Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s memoir Guantánamo Diary.
Salahi, the eponymous Mauritanian, was detained at Guantánamo Bay detention camp without charge from 2002, nominally on suspicion of significant involvement in the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001. Rahim’s portrayal – and the charectisation from screenwriters M.B. Traven, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani – of Salahi is admirably nuanced, eschewing the temptation to portray him either as an untrustworthy foreigner or as an above-suspicion, wronged saint. Instead, the audience – at least, those who do not know the real-life story already – is left to wonder on Salahi’s innocence in parallel with his on-screen advocates: Jodie Foster’s defense attorney Nancy Hollander, and her associate Teri Duncan (the audience’s in-story avatar, played with subtlety by Shailene Woodley).
Foster does Foster: she can do more with a glance off-camera than many actors can muster with a barnstorming speech. Her role here calls for restraint, determination and conviction in equal measure, and she’s more than up to the task. Her chemistry with Woodley’s less experienced assistant bubbles along nicely, erupting in one key scene with both keeping a lid on unnecessary melodramatics.
Meanwhile, Benedict Cumberbatch notches up yet another impressive chameleonic performance as military prosecutor Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch, charged with bringing Salahi to trial – but increasingly suspicious of the lack of compelling evidence.
In some sense, The Mauritanian is a by-the-numbers legal procedural, and in lesser hands than director Kevin Macdonald (Touching The Void, The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) things could’ve taken a turn for the tub-thumping, “you can’t handle the truth”, scenery-chewing spectacle to keep audiences engaged. But Macdonald and his cast trust to the material and, more importantly, to the power of the story they are telling – the defence of the rule of law, of right vs wrong, and the immutable rights to which we are all entitled.
Whether or not you know the story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, The Mauritanian is a must-see, dramatic indictment against a broken, morally corrupt system, deserving of the excellent performances and sure-footed direction – and roof that ‘important’ films can make for unmissable cinema.