Film review: The Mauritanian

With marquee names and a story widely known from news headlines, Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian was the big ticket premiere at the 2021 Glasgow Film Festival. Adapting the memoir of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, the Mauritanian national in question who was held without charge by the US in the Guantánamo Bay detention camp for nearly 15 years, the film mixes legal drama and questions of injustice to decent effect. Yet ultimately Macdonald’s work provokes more indignation about secret and unjust detention than emotion in the film itself.

Before celebrating its achievements, one has to consider The Mauritanian’s greatest fault: its chronological structure. The desire to have one specific moment serve as the drama’s climax makes sense, as it is the juiciest reveal, but when that moment is read in the present, about a moment in the past, concerning a person who has already been discussing his past for a year (and 90 minutes in the movie), the logic struggles.

McDonald tries to circumvent the issue by shuffling the pack, introducing a tame double narrative in which Salahi is also interviewed 8 years earlier, and even double flashback. Nonetheless the viewer is still left thinking that this rather pertinent information, the crux of the entire moral and legal case, would have been the first, not last, thing discussed with one’s legal team.

On the plus side is that marquee cast. Jodie Foster, who recently won a Golden Globe for her role in this as red-nailed lawyer Nancy Hollander, was a guaranteed success. It is difficult to imagine Foster not resembling an attorney, even in her downtime, and she has always owned an ability to deliver serious dialogue like a high-functioning white collar professional. Riskier was casting Cumberbatch as US military lawyer Stuart Couch (I understand that America has, over the years, produced quite a number of actors), but Benedict is malleable and delivers. Even Shailene Woodley awakens from her YA stupor enough to achieve average as Hollander’s aide.

Playing Salahi, the film is ultimately Tahar Rahim’s vehicle. Speaking in multiple languages, at multiple fluency levels due to the shifting narrative (albeit not always believably), while mostly physically restricted to sitting in cells or standing in prison yards, Rahim carries The Mauritanian throughout.

None of the actors are as relevant to The Mauritanian as the justice system. Played out primarily via prison interviews and requests for court documents, the film makes no secret that it considers the post-9/11 abandonment of due process by military detention centres as scandalous, undermining the principle values of western democracy. However, it does miss a trick, for whilst the film begins with ambiguity about Salahi’s own morality and connections – as Hollander suggests, one doesn’t casually end up in Guantánamo Bay – it swiftly converts him into a fully sympathetic character. It feels like the film lacked confidence to carry both the pathos of injustice and the complexities of Salahi’s background, and so settles for the former.

The upshot of all this is that The Mauritanian is mildly flawed yet well acted and emotionally effective. Moreover, while the film may drain from the memory soon enough, the questions arising from dubious approaches to national security and justice continue to be contemporary. This is a film that will make one consider Guantánamo, Xinjiang, Saydnaya, Assam, the Chagos Islands, and every other corner in which governments and militaries operate along the dubious edges of legal systems – it will also have you asking ‘in the name of who?’ This, alongside its A-list cast, make it worth the time.

The Mauritanian On was released in the UK on 26th February

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