The Mauritanian: Guantánamo drama in need of greater bite

Review: Tahar Rahim’s subtle performance lifts a gripping but flawed film about torture

The Mauritanian
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Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cert: Club
Genre: Drama
Starring: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Levi
Running Time: 2 hrs 9 mins

Watching Kevin Macdonald’s gripping, righteous, shocking, insufficiently committed Guantánamo drama, one is again reminded that the subject – so appalling and so bizarre – is, perhaps, best suited to the blackest satire.

Little things register as absurd. When lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) brings food to her client, Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim), at the facility, the only option available is a McDonald’s outlet. Next to a prison for suspects denied habeas corpus? Why not a Disney theme park as well?

Big things also seem too heightened for the real world. Among the tortures inflicted on Salahi is a lap dance by a masked female operative. All this is wrapped up in a superficially efficient bureaucracy – something Americans do very well – that seeks to impose normality on a catalogue of madness.

Satire is, however, not really Macdonald’s bag. The director of The Last King of Scotland and Touching the Void has tidied Salahi’s story into a smoothly running mainstream drama ordered by all the usual checks and balances. The eponymous Mauritanian, formerly with the mujahideen in Afghanistan, was picked up following 9/11 and, after acquisition by the US authorities, detained without trial at Guantánamo for 14 years. He confessed to involvement in the 2001 attacks, but, as nobody should need to be again told, victims of torture will say anything to make the torment cease. Salahi was eventually released with no formal charge ever levelled.

The absurdity is heightened, rather than lessened, by the state’s honouring of certain constitutional rights. Salahi was permitted a lawyer but, with the accusations so vague, Hollander was limited in what she could achieve.

The filmmakers are in a bind with that character. Focus too much on her and they risk accusations of “white saviour” complex. As it stands, for all Foster’s gallant efforts – now dignified in grey locks – we are left wanting to hear more about what motivates an advocate for such divisive defendants (she was also on the legal team of the former Real IRA leader Michael McKevitt). Hollander, perhaps, deserves her own film.

In contrast, we could have done with less of Benedict Cumberbatch – chicken- fried accent and iron-backed rectitude – as Lieut Col Stuart Couch, the upright prosecutor who, acquainted with one of the 9/11 pilots, is initially eager to nail Salahi. Couch’s real-life journey was surely a fascinating one, but here it plays out as predictable awards-season parable. The move from black to white spends little time in the grey zone.

The Mauritanian is at its best when focusing on its protagonist. Salahi has little agency but, alternating between despair and determination, Tahir Rahim – who achieved fame playing another prisoner in A Prophet – is such a master of the subtle inclination that we emerge with a real sense of his internal odyssey.

Adapted from Salahi’s Guantánamo Diary, the screenplay discovers imaginative ways of detailing the wider outrages. He makes friends with another inmate who remains just a voice in an adjoining section of the exercise area. The buzzes and hums of the complex prove an ambient torture when he is not undergoing the more extreme variety.

Cinematographer Alwin H Küchler, who has done good work on Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher and Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, casts a blasted glare on action that so often moves through metaphorical murk. Justine Wright’s editing finds grotesque rhythms for the torture sequence. The sound design is superlative throughout.

Few viewers will find themselves unengaged during The Mauritanian, but there are too many middlebrow beats either side of the jarring chords. Definitely worth a stream. Unlikely to change many minds.

Available on digital platforms from April 2nd

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist