The Mauritanian


‘…The Mauritanian, whatever its flaws, makes a good fist of addressing issues about Guantanamo Bay…’

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.

The Mauritanian is out now and for free for Amazon Prime subscribers in the UK. Link below.





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    • You would think so. But if Benedict Cumberbatch decides to read them, I doubt he’ll be impressed to find people planning tea parties and discussing Alex’s quiz game.

  1. “Playing the character is a cipher” – yes, I think that’s it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why the film didn’t quite work for me, but I reckon you’re right that’s probably a major part of it. This had the potential to be a much more interesting and gripping film, but in the end it felt a bit inconsequential. I suppose that can also be the difficulty on having to rely on real life, which doesn’t often shape itself into nicely structured story arcs either. I wonder if it would have worked better as a miniseries, perhaps it could have benefited from a more episodic structure. I also felt the (white saviour) protagonists, in fact virtually everyone, had decent motives even if there were some very questionable means. But a bit of grit and compromised ethics wouldn’t have hurt.

    • It’s cool to find out that The Mauritanian likes Law and Order and Ally McBeal, but that’s the last five minutes. The Foster/Cumberbatch characters are so developed, and yet the protagonist is not, and really just identified through his suffering. I think the film is well meant, and it will work for some, but the film’s focus feels slanted in terms of those who help him, rather than the storyteller himself.

    • Well, it’s a considerably more important and coherent film than Kong vs Godzilla, got plenty of good stuff to get through first, got Palm Springs, Nomadland, The Undoing, Promising Young Woman, would want to get them all out first before the upmpteenth monsterverse bore. I think Godzilla King of the Monsters put that gas at a peep some time ago…

        • No, because they’ve shifted the release date three times now. I saw Nomadland in a cinema in October, and it’s still not week-of-release….

          • Do you sign something not to post reviews before their release date, or is it just an honour system? I mean, this is the Internet (this, right here) and there have been reviews of Nomadland up for months.

            • Absolutely, it’s an honour system, but for most readers, they only want to read reviews WOR (week of release). I’ll run some reviews earlier if the PR/studio are up for it, but the films I listed were mainly viewed in Dec/Jan, and have been carried forward due to the virus. Sure, as a critic, you can break the rules, but there are consequences.

              • Sure, but I just wonder what the studios think they’re gaining by this in today’s media environment. Like I say, if anyone in the UK wants to read a review of Nomadland they can read hundreds of them online. Scotland isn’t behind some firewall. At least I don’t think you are . . .

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