REVIEW: The Mauritanian (2021)

Tahar Rahim as Mohamedou Ould Slahi in Kevin Macdonald’s THE MAURITANIAN – Photo: STX Films / Amazon Prime Video.

Directed by Kevin Macdonald – Screenplay by M.B. Traven, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani.

Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian is a legal drama based on Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s memoir Guantanamo Diary. The film tells the true story of Mohamedou’s experience as a detainee at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, in which he was subject to so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ which essentially amounts to torture. The film juxtaposes the perspectives of two lawyers — Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and Nancy Hollander (played by Jodie Foster) — who are both trying to make sense of exactly what made Mohamedou (played by Tahar Rahim) confess to crimes of terrorism. To do so, Nancy and Stuart must try to gain access to thousands of redacted classified documents.

The first film that The Mauritanian made me think of was Scott Z. Burns’ The Report from 2019. It feels like that movie only just came out, and yet no one is really talking about it anymore. It came and went without much of a cultural impact, which is a shame. I remember writing that The Report was elevated by a strong central performance but was also made somewhat listless by an overabundance of dull scenes of people reading thousands of documents, which are the types of scenes that can sometimes feel ‘dramatically inert.’ That description could also be applied to describe Kevin Macdonald’s film, and, in a way, one film feels like a spin-off of the other since they are both about the unspeakable interrogation techniques used by Americans (and since, at least in my territory, both films have been released on Amazon Prime Video as ‘original films’).

In The Report, it was Adam Driver — arguably one of the greatest actors of his generation — who delivered the standout performance, and, in The Mauritanian, it is the French actor Tahar Rahim who well and truly elevates the film and makes it something more than just a somewhat sluggish legal drama. Rahim sells some of his character’s surprisingly light-hearted one-liners — “See you later, Alligator!” — when it could’ve all seemed a little bit too silly in the wrong hands. He’s a great actor who is capable of handling both the most intense and frightening scenes depicting interrogation techniques, as well as those aforementioned lines of quirky dialogue. But what he successfully brings to the film is a humanity and a charisma, which can sometimes be severely missing in legal dramas that focus too much on empty courtroom buildings or grey study areas.

The Report also had this one notable supporting performance from Annette Bening, but, in this case, The Mauritanian has it beat since there are several supporting performances that deserve a mention. In general, the cast is quite good. I was surprised to see both Zachary Levi and Shailene Woodley, the former of which plays a character very much unlike the characters that Levi has been known to play, but it is the performances of Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch that are at least somewhat memorable. Although she is perfectly fine in the film, Foster’s performance is not really a showy performance, and I am surprised that the HFPA saw enough from Foster to give her a Golden Globe for the performance. Cumberbatch’s performance will be remembered for his somewhat exaggerated American accent. I’m not as harsh on his American accent in Marvel films as I know other people are, but his accent in The Mauritanian is fairly over-the-top. However, he did deliver a solid performance here.

Like I wrote earlier, the major criticisms of this film are eerily similar to those that were applied by me to Scott Z. Burns’ The Report. And so it almost feels like I’m repeating myself when I say that Macdonald’s The Mauritanian, which, again, is so similar to Burns’ film, is also buoyed up by its lead actor’s moving and sometimes rather charismatic performance, but that doesn’t make it any less true. However, you absolutely should make time to see this film, because Rahim is that good.

7.5 out of 10

Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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