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VOD Review: The Mauritanian

March 2, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The Mauritanian, a new legal thriller directed by Kevin Macdonald and featuring a starry cast, dramatizes the true story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi and the years he spent awaiting a trial at Guantanamo Bay, where he was kept imprisoned with no formal charges laid against him.

Slahi is portrayed by French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim, and the film opens with him being detained in Mauritania, on suspicion that he served as a top recruiter for Al-Qaeda and recruited the nineteen terrorists who hijacked the planes that flew into the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Jodie Foster takes on the juicy part of Nancy Hollander, the high profile defence attorney who took on Slahi’s case. As is laid out in the film, Hollander chooses to defend him not necessarily because she believes he is innocent, but rather because she views his case as a fight for everyone’s right to a fair trial. Foster, (who just pulled off a surprise upset at the Golden Globes by winning Best Supporting Actress for the role), is very good here in the way that we expect a veteran actress of her calibre to be, but her decidedly no-nonsense portrayal stops short of being outright memorable or revelatory.

Shailene Woodley portrays Teri Duncan, a young lawyer who becomes Hollander’s assistant on the case, and has her own sense of right and wrong challenged by the proceedings. Finally, Benedict Cumberbatch (with a spotty American accent) plays the role of Stuart Couch, a lawyer and Marine Corps veteran who is brought on to prosecute Slahi’s case and is seeking the death penalty, wanting justice for his friend who was killed in 9/11. Couch’s crisis of faith as he learns more about Slahi’s treatment at Guantanamo Bay becomes the dramatic focus of the film’s second half.

This is all very interesting material, inspired by Slahi’s own memoir Guantanamo Diary. But the film’s approach to telling this story is also somewhat heavy-handed, and at times The Mauritanian seems overly focused on delivering showy Oscar moments for its stars. The under-developed characterizations of some of the real life subjects feel paper thin at times, including Woodley’s Duncan, who is given a moral dilemma partway through that seems to come out of nowhere.

As a whole, the film ends up feeling somewhat stuck between a gritty inside look at Guantanamo Bay and an indictment of the political system that allows it to operate, as well as a more generic and familiar courtroom drama. But there are still some moments of raw power within The Mauritanian. The film’s best scenes, and also the most disturbing, come from its depiction of the torture that Slahi faced at the hands of the United States government while being detained.

Macdonald doesn’t shy away from showing the horrific methods that were used to force information out of him, including sleep deprivation, water boarding, and sexual assault. These scenes employ a strobe light effect, which works to disorient the audience, and also squish the screen down to a boxed in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which is a noticeable shift from the widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio that the rest of the film is presented in. Rahim, who is best known for his role in the French crime drama A Prophet, also delivers the finest performance in the film as Slahi, imbuing his portrayal of the real life subject with the right mix of confidence and abject fear in a way that makes him magnetic to watch.

The screenplay by Michael Bronner, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani also does a fairly decent job of raising questions about whether he was guilty or not, while making a strong case against the “enhanced interrogation measures” that were used on him. The film ultimately offers a pretty good if at times simplistic overview of Slahi’s case, with a decidedly anti-torture message.

The Mauritanian is now available to watch on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

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