Review: ‘The Mauritanian’ features a strong central performance stuck in a bog-standard legal drama

It’s no secret that the United States has done some terrible things in the wake of the September 11th, 2001 attacks. Nearly 800 people were detained at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp –which, for the record, remains open still– without due process. They have been subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques”, a bland euphemism for torture. In violation of both international agreements and the united states constitution, these prisoners rights were ignored and their persons abused. The entire affair was –and continues to be– a blight on American history.

The Mauritanian tells the story of one of these people. Mohamedou Ould Salahi (played by Tahar Rahim) was held at Guantanamo for 14 years. His memoir, written while in detention, became the basis for this movie, in which his harrowing story is hiding inside a legal drama we’ve all seen before.

Salahi’s story is tragic and made even more so by knowing that he’s just one of hundreds. Rahim is excellent in the role as well, with each visit to his cell and each flashback to his life before and during his incarceration revealing more of his character. The problem is that Salahi is a secondary character in his own movie. Instead, it follows Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), the lawyer who takes on his case, argues that his rights have been violated, and eventually sees him freed.

Jodie Foster / The Mauritanian

Foster is a great actor, and this is exactly the kind of performance in the kind of film that will end up with her being nominated for awards this season –in fact, she already won a Golden Globe this past weekend. In a film designed to remind us that rights are for everyone or no one at all, she’s exactly the person you want to deliver the lines about how the Constitution doesn’t have an asterisk.

The rest of the supporting cast is reliable, with Shailene Woodley as the bright-eyed young co-counsel for the defence. Benedict Cumberbatch is on hand with a thick southern accent, the honourable Navy lawyer charged with prosecuting the government’s case. They each give solid performances, despite one of them doing a Sam Elliott impression.

Guantanamo Bay is a stain on American history, the kind of thing that will either be studied as the exception to or the example of the true nature of America as a society. The Mauritanian wants to remind us of this fact, but with its focus split between the lawyers and their client, it can’t quite be as effective with that reminder as it could or should be.

Rating: 3/5

The Mauritanian is available on-demand now.


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