Whether he’s making documentaries or dramas, director Kevin Macdonald has an eye for the bleak moments in our history, and a dynamic way of recreating them, from the Oscar-winning doc Four Days in September, about the Munich massacre, to the fictionalised account of the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, The Last King of Scotland, which at times played like a horror film.
Compared to those, The Mauritanian feels pretty conventional, a tale of righteous lawyers and their ill-treated client, amid the well-trod US malfeasance in its War on Terror. Yet there’s no denying the almost preternatural humanity of the film’s real-life protagonist and, playing him, a mesmerising, deeply moving performance by French-Algerian Tahar Rahim. Having Jodie Foster along for the ride certainly doesn’t hurt.
It’s based on Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s best-selling memoir Guantánamo Diary, concerning his rendition from his Mauritanian home two months after 9/11 and years-long imprisonment in America’s notorious detention centre for supposed terrorist suspects, hundreds of people who were never charged.
This focusses on events in 2005, when Slahi’s fate hangs in the balance. On the one hand, he has impressive defence lawyer Nancy Hollander (Foster, pictured above with Shailene Woodley) putting together a case of habeas corpus that, if successful, could lead to his release; on the other, military prosecutor Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch, pictured below), charged with finally trying him as an al-Qaeda recruiter, with the death penalty as the goal.
The script segues between the present, as the lawyers on both sides find it difficult to put together a case when the shady powers that be redact all the evidence, and flashbacks to the “enhanced interrogation”, nay torture of Slahi (waterboarding, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation) that has given Guantanamo such an appalling reputation.
Macdonald handles the back and forth well, changing his screen ratio and filters to both delineate the transitions and lend the torture sequences an appropriately visceral and nightmarish quality.
Where the film stutters is in the back and forth between the defence and prosecuting teams, which feels rather rote, not least because Slahi’s innocence is never really in doubt, and Couch turns out to be a decent guy whose sense of ‘the rule of law’ prohibits him from accepting the shabby hearsay passed off as evidence by his superiors.
The resulting lack of tension is accompanied by a surprising absence of questioning – the who, why and how on earth did they get away with it that one always wants to throw at this subject, and which was tackled much more forensically in 2019’s Adam Driver starrer The Report. It’s indicative of the degree to which The Mauritanian skirts such nuts and bolts that a shocking twist that draws in the usually unimpeachable Barack Obama has no elaboration whatsoever.
But the focus is clearly Slahi, whose desire and ability to forgive his tormentors (he points out that ‘forgiveness’ and ‘freedom’ are the same word in Arabic) is extremely powerful. Rahim has been consistently impressive ever since he burst onto the scene in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet in 2009. The past six months have showcased his range, from the chilling, real-life serial killer Charles Sobhraj in the BBC’s The Serpent, even managing to give tight ‘70s trousers an air of menace, to the nuanced turn here that captures Slahi’s goodness, goofball wit and courage without ever forcing pathos. The way he sniffs at a McDonald’s meal his lawyers have brought him, before tossing it away, conveys more indignation and dismay at his confinement than would pages of script.
Foster’s portrayal of Hollander has some of the no-nonsense, hardball confidence of her more morally dubious lawyer in Spike Lee’s brilliant Inside Man (2006), while adding a brittleness that suggests a life of personal sacrifice beneath the tenacity of a woman who’s “been fighting the government since Vietnam.”
The too few scenes between Slahi, Hollander and her more emotional assistant Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) are the film’s highpoints, alongside some nicely restrained heavyweight sparring between Foster and Cumberbatch, who’s also a producer on the film.
This review first appeared in The Arts Desk