Film Review: The Mauritanian


Expressly out of sight, with the intention of being out of mind, there were only so many monikers – Gitmo, Camp X-Ray – and so many excuses, pieces of questionable legislation, that the US government could throw at their activities in Guantánamo Bay before the truth would out. Based on the 2015 memoir Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Salahi, The Mauritanian is another addition to a canon of films seeking to shed light on dark secrets.

Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom’s docudrama The Road to Guantanamo and Alex Gibney’s searing expose Taxi to the Dark Side were among the first to do so, setting a high benchmark – if such a reductive term can be used – for representations of this despicable chapter in America’s recent past. A past that continues into the present with the infamous detention centre still in operation now, Kevin Macdonald’s latest feature remains pertinent, pressing. Or at least it really should. Sadly, in spite of earnest, admirable intentions, and the best efforts of a cast who do their utmost with a bland script, The Mauritanian is a film all too soon forgotten.

Given the galling, brutal subject matter at hand here, we really should walk, or rather stagger, away from this film eviscerated, left reeling by what has been witnessed. Salahi was held without charge for 14 years under two administrations, accused of recruiting the men who carried out the Twin Tower attacks, suffering brutally from first to last. But late intertitles, detailing in clinical fashion the facts left unexplored, and brief images of the real-life individuals embodied by Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley and Benedict Cumberbatch, leave more of an impact than all that has been until this point. Nevertheless, Rahim’s portrayal of Salahi is deserving of praise, in a film which otherwise falls short of potential and expectations.

Twelve years since his breakout in Jacques Audiard’s extraordinary A Prophet, his turn in The Mauritanian is further proof – for those who may not have followed his career to date – that the French-Algerian actor is more than capable of carrying heavy material more or less single-handed. Hounded, physically and mentally wounded, his dark eyes conveying the terror of his circumstances, twitchy glances to security cameras and nervous movements in claustrophobic conditions combine to disturbing effect. Indeed, there are echoes of the Audiard’s film here. Once again incarcerated, Rahim demonstrates a maturity and confidence onscreen that have come with experience.

Exercising in a yard blocked off from view, a tentative friendship with detainee neighbour ‘Marseille’ – heard but not seen – provide rare glimpses of the depth that could have been developed in The Mauritanian. Visits from his newly-formed defence team (Foster and Woodley as Nancy Hollander and Teri Duncan respectively) and their background research, of highly redacted documents, are then combined with extended flashbacks as Salahi puts pen to paper with the objective of clearing his name. The frame needlessly narrowing from widescreen to a closed, squared ratio, this device does more to distract than emphasise the walls closing in.

With post-9/11 pitchforks primed and at the ready before investigations have even begun, military lawyer Stuart Couch (Cumberbatch) combats a guilty until proven innocent bias in all around him. Again, it’s a pity that neither he, nor Foster is given the material or direction to move out of second or third gear and when later he is wracked by a crisis of conscience, a sermon given at Couch’s church which speaks to “inherent human dignity,“ the on-the-nose script really hits its peak, but unfortunately never truly hits its mark. The Mauritanian is not the film it could, and really should, have been.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63