• Rosh Chandy

The Mauritanian (2021) Review

A still from The Mauritanian featuring Jodie Foster
Credit: Amazon

The Mauritanian is based on the 2015 memoir Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Salahi. It details the true story of Salahi’s experiences of having been held for 14 years without charge in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

Directed by Kevin MacDonald, who made Touching the Void and The Last King of Scotland, the movie is an on-the-nose recount of recent history, similar to 2019's Official Secrets and The Report, but much less procedural and more cinematic - and featuring some strong performances from an exemplary cast including Tahar Rahim and Jodie Foster.

The Mauritanian follows Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Rahim) who was captured by the US Government and is languishing in Guantanamo Bay detention camp without any charge or trial. As he loses all hope, Salahi finds aid in defence attorney Nancy Hollander (Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley). They face a number of obstacles in their increasingly desperate pursuit of justice. The team’s controversial advocacy, along with fabricated evidence revealed by military prosecutor Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), eventually uncovers a shocking and far-reaching conspiracy.

It’s the performances that make this film worth a watch

Unlike many films based on real-life political cases, The Mauritanian is profoundly cinematic. The film is predominantly set in the confined settings of the detention camp, with airless rooms where the walls appear to be caving in, and the legal offices and courtrooms of Foster’s Nancy Hollander. This could all look very procedural and televisual, but MacDonald manages to make these locations suitable for the big screen by honing in on minute details. For example, a close-up shot of a door handle or a tracking shot of Foster’s car pulling into a multi-story car park work well.

The politics of this movie, though, are rather on-the-nose. The messages of the movie should have been more subtle - not literally mouthed by characters.

There are also horror elements to this story. The torture scenes are very hard to watch - hallucinogenic scenes of men and women in animal masks tormenting Mohamedou make for scary viewing in particular.

Ultimately, however, it’s the performances that make the film worth a watch. Jodie Foster is typically steely and her brusque voice sounds so suited to reading legal terminology. Tahar Rahim has a completely different role to playing captivating serial killer Charles Sobhraj in The Serpent. This is a much more minimalist performance that relies on minute gestures such as the tilt of the head or a stutter. He really captures Mohamedou’s anguish and fear at being incarcerated and tortured in suffocating rooms.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s American accent, meanwhile, isn’t great - and Shailene Woodley has a rather thankless supporting role as Hollander’s legal assistant Duncan.

I wish the movie’s wishy-washy liberal politics were more subtle and less head-on, but there’s an inspirational story here and some great performances from Foster and Rahim.


The Mauritanian is on Amazon Prime from April 1st.