The Mauritanian

 

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A work for mainstream cinema that nevertheless deals effectively with disturbing truths.

 
Mauritanian, The

Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim and Shailene Woodley

 

The titular figure of Kevin Macdonald's latest film is Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a man who was released from Guantánamo Bay in 2016. Although he was never charged, he was seized in 2001 in Mauritania, taken to Jordan and then found himself held in Guantánamo as a suspected recruiter for Al Queda. His detention there lasted from 2002 to 2016 and the memoir that he wrote while in captivity was published in 2015. Now we have this adaptation for the screen which presents his story as a mainstream drama with the distinguished Franco-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim playing the prisoner and with Jodie Foster in the role of his defence attorney, Nancy Hollander, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, the military prosecutor assigned to handle this case.

 

The Mauritanian is a very effective example of how a film can take a deeply serious subject and handle it responsibly while also presenting it as a work of broad appeal. Its success is dependent both on a screenplay that finds the right approach (the major credit here goes to M.B. Traven) and to the highly efficient filmmaking. Macdonald is on masterly form here and cleverly finds a way to maintain clarity in the narrative by adopting different ratios. He uses the 'Scope format for the unfolding events but a more limited ratio for the flashbacks that are interspersed. These flashbacks cover scenes in Mauritania during Slahi's youth and episodes of interrogation prior to the stage at which Nancy Hollander comes into the story. Thus, without ever confusing the viewer, he is able to bring variety to the narrative by jumping back and forth between some past history and the continuing attempts to save the accused man who is being treated so unjustly.

 

The various elements that emerge after Hollander becomes involved add to the compelling power of the piece. As the story develops we may well conclude that Slahi was indeed an innocent falsely accused through his connection with a cousin close to Bin Laden. However, The Mauritanian also has another tale to tell too, that of the lawyer who took on the case not because she was convinced of her client's innocence but as a believer in habeas corpus and in the need for the law to be justly applied always. Involving too is the situation in which Couch finds himself. Initially he looks set to be the villain of the piece - on being appointed in this matter it is made clear that a court hearing is being set up with the specific object of securing a death sentence. However, when evidence of torture by the authorities eventually emerges, Couch will take a stand of his own.

 

This is absorbing storytelling aided by a first-rate cast. Rahim lives up to the reputation that he has built in such films as A Prophet (2009) and The Past (2013), Cumberbatch is as assured as ever and, although Foster has been absent from the screen for some time, her portrayal of Nancy Hollander shows complete conviction (this is a portrait of a woman we can believe totally in as a successful lawyer). One section relatively late on underlines how the worst treatment meted out broke Slahi and consequently caused him to make a false confession. Here Macdonald misjudges for once by providing elaborate images that are intended to represent Slahi's experience under extreme pressure but which actually play like a filmmaker's display piece. But that is a rare mis-step and The Mauritanian is a compelling story that will hold viewers in its grip and then leave them pondering the injustices that took place in the Guantánamo Bay detention camp.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Levi, Langley Kirkwood, Corey Johnson, Matthew Marsh, Saamer Usmani, David Fynn, Meena Rayann, Andre Jacobs, Justine Mitchell.

 

Dir Kevin Macdonald, Pro Adam Ackland, Michael Bronner, Benedict Cumberbatch, Leah Clarke, Christine Holder, Mark Holder, Beatriz Levin, Lloyd Levin and Branwen Prestwood-Smith, Screenplay M.B. Traven, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani, based on the book Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Ph Alwin H.Küchler, Pro Des Michael Carlin, Ed Justine Wright, Music Tom Hodge, Costumes Alexandra Byrne.

 

STX Films/A Shadowplay Features/SunnyMarch/Wonder Street/30 WEST/BBC Films/Topic Studios-STX International.
129 mins. UK/USA. 2021. Rel: 1 April 2021. Cert. TBC.