Awards bodies are slapping themselves on the back in 2021 with regards to diversity; this year’s false positive comes about largely because most big-studio, star-driven projects didn’t open with worldwide cinemas closed. Most of the prestige pictures that were barely released were backwards looking, with subjects ranging from Victorian geologists to 1960’s culture-gurus, but very little that relates directly to today’s charged world. Scottish director Kevin Macdonald has generally done a good job of making films that relate to the now, and The Mauritanian, whatever its flaws, makes a good fist of addressing issues about Guantanamo Bay.
Having wowed us in the elliptical gangster thriller A Prophet, Tahar Rahim plays the Mauritanian of the title, Mohamedou Ould Salahi. He’s an innocent who ends up a prisoner without a trail or a crime to confess to; his predicament brings him into contact with feisty lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her assistant Teri (Shailene Woodley). Meanwhile driven soldier Lt Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) is zero-ing in on his quarry, but increasingly suspicious that the evidence he’s getting has been fabricated for political reasons…
The Mauritanian was an awards front-runner, winning a Golden Globe for Foster, but even in a dramatically weakened field, seems to have found little favour with the Academy, who are unlikely to have been wowed with a perceived criticism of American justice systems. The source material is a book written by Mohamedou Ould Salahi, so the film’s vision should be understood to reflect his POV as a Muslim. That makes for a reasonably gripping, intense film as Hollander gains Salahi’s trust, but struggles to understand exactly who her client is and how he can be extricated from his predicament.
Well-intentioned, but missing a spark that might have won a mass audience over, Macdonald’s film ends up failing to generate enough sympathy for the protagonist, with Salahi’s seven year extension of captivity at the hands of the Obama administration treated as a cruel throwaway gag. It’s certainly worth a watch, with timely and scabrous comment on political and military corruption, but the final take-away is somewhat muted by never quite portraying the central character as more than a cipher, despite being based on his own writings. There’s more than a touch of white saviour about the Mississipi Burning ease with which the film focuses on the non-Muslim characters who take up the valuable screen-time that might have explored The Mauritanian’s inner life.
Thanks to Amazon Prime for advance screener access to this film.