Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian opens this year’s Glasgow Film Festival at home and gets the screenings off to a solid start. Based on Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantanamo Diary, the feature sees Tahar Rahim take the central role of Slahi, a man snatched by the US government in 2001 who were convinced off his involvement in the 9/11 attacks. Director Kevin Macdonald has crafted a tale which does an equally impressive job at capturing both the legal battle and the human heart at the centre of it – yet some narrative tangents have a sense of untapped potential.
Opening in the North African republic of Mauritania in 2001, Slahi (Rahim) is escorted from a family celebration and taken by US government for questioning due to suspected involvement in the 9/11 attacks. Jumping forward to 2005, we are introduced to defence lawyers Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) who track Slahi down to Guantanamo Bay. Determined to free Slahi, who had not been charged, The Mauritanian centres on Hollander’s team’s attempt to free the inmate, whilst uncovering darker truths about the lawless treatment taking place at Guantanamo.
The Mauritanian has echoes of prestige legal pictures of the nineties with the intricate criss-crossing of characters and their respective missions taking centre stage. Based on a screenplay from M.B. Traven, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani, the feature takes time to delve into the escalating and eventually intertwining cases of both Hollander and patriot Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) who seeks to defend the government’s case. Whilst the film manages to find thrills in developments into Slahi”s potential involvement, the search through countless redacted documents, and the harrowing treatment at Guantanamo – there is a sense that most of the narrative weight is to be found in straddling the grey areas of the story.
The inner struggle of Woodley’s Terri Duncan as elements of Slahi’s potential guilt creep into the narrative, captures a slight sense of some of battles faced by defence lawyers – particularly in high profile terror cases. The ripple effects on her family life and the abuse faced at the hands of the American public and press proves to be an interesting dynamic. This does feel somewhat underutilised with preference instead going to glossier legal discussions rather than the human heart of the story in terms of the film’s supporting characters. Similarly intriguing is the character journey that is touched upon in Cumberbatch’s Lt. Couch’s narrative mission – the die hard American military patriot’s slow disillusionment at the abusive practices at Guantanamo are touched on, but once again lacking in the depth that would do them justice, despite a solid turn from the British actor.
Splitting these legal scenes with visceral depictions of the abuse at Guantanamo does build up some emotive tension with these being some of The Mauritanian’s most shockingly effective. Recreations of the well-documented abuses at Guantanamo including the playing of deafening heavy metal music, claustrophobic cells, physical harassment, violence, and sexual humiliation that faced Slahi are some of the feature’s most shocking.
The key success of The Mauritanian is Tahar Rahim’s central performance. Accused of taking a call from Bin Laden’s cell phone, the narrative finds intrigue in the uncertainties within the case, something further heightened by Rahim’s intriguing lead turn. Whilst there are no questions regarding the horrific interrogation and brutality that he faces – which serves as an attention-grabbing prison survivalist tale – the actor brings a sense of humanity and likeability to the fold in quiet moments with other inmates and his charm when dealing with his lawyers – a far cry from the initial warmings that Hollander and Duncan are given upon arriving at the prison when told to wear hijabs as prisoners are known to spit at female visitors.
In putting Slahi’s story at the centre of the The Mauritanian, Macdonald shines an unsettling light at the human cost of the tortures and brutalities taking place in lawless Guantanamo. The legal procedural elements showcase the red tape and complex bureaucracy the US Government put in place under the gauze of national security which takes place over civil liberties – a side of the narrative that Foster and Woodley carry with ease. Rahim’s human heart of the story ensures that the project is engaging, yet there is a sense of depth left untapped in terms of Cumberbatch’s former patriot angle and the complexities of the high profile defence lawyer that would have benefited The Mauritanian.