The Mauritanian, review: Cumberbatch in Guantánamo is no-one’s idea of a thrill

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Tim Robey
·4 min read
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Benedict Cumberbatch plays a military prosecutor in Kevin Macdonald's film
Benedict Cumberbatch plays a military prosecutor in Kevin Macdonald's film
  • Dir: Kevin Macdonald. Cast: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Levi, Corey Johnson, Matthew Marsh. Cert TBC, 129 mins

Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian is a legal thriller of sorts, but one with a timeline that sets about defeating suspense: a 14-year incarceration without trial at Guantánamo would squeeze the hope, or second-act tension, out of anyone’s life story. It follows Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim), a detainee from Mauritania who was placed in US government custody two months after 9/11, as part of the CIA’s program of extraordinary rendition. While in prison, he wrote a tell-all memoir, published as Guantánamo Diary a year before he was finally released.

Pursuing the idea that he was a major figure in al Qaeda’s recruitment drive, the authorities had little to go on except old connections and family ties. In the early 1990s, when barely out of his teens, Salahi had trained with al Qaeda to help topple the communist government of Najibullah in Afghanistan, a coup the US were actually backing at the time. Meanwhile, his cousin was a spiritual adviser to Osama bin Laden and therefore another person of interest, though he had opposed the 9/11 attacks and left al Qaeda soon after they occurred.

No matter: sifting through this kind of fog of motivation was exactly the purpose Guantánamo was designed to serve, even if years and years drag by on screen, with ever-worsening interrogation methods, and nothing concrete materialises. Salahi might still be there if it weren’t for his legal team, headed pro bono by a formidable defence attorney called Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), who flies to Cuba with a colleague to do the translating (Shailene Woodley). They’re surprised to find that Salahi, resourceful in his rather antic way, has picked up a solid grasp of English from the guards and fellow prisoners.

While these two organise his defence, it falls to a military prosecutor called Lt Col Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) to bring him to trial, with evidence that could be described as circumstantial at best – like Salahi deleting all the numbers off his phone, to protect family members, in the moments before his arrest. Everything hinges on a confession the military has up its sleeve.

By now, at Guantánamo, we know how that goes: the darkest flashbacks, well into the second hour here, are a nightmarish vision of sleep deprivation, heavy metal blasts, horror masks, sexual humiliation and water boarding.

Classified to high heaven as these methods all were, the defence have no access to them, and Salahi has all but blocked the scribbled confession from his memory. Even Couch is flooded with doubts about whether he can make a conviction stick: on paper he’s the chief antagonist, but Cumberbatch, well-deployed with his clipped official manner, is a figure of conscience being hung out to dry, just as horrified as the defence about the various coercions behind bars.

Woodley’s role is pretty feeble – with translating out, her main function is bringing along snacks – but Foster is briskly effective in a tidy grey wig, as an unsentimental counsel ever-ready with her set spiel that even the guilty need legal advice. When she places a hand on Salahi’s, late into the film, it’s a pivot towards compassion in light of everything he’s gone through.

Tahar Rahim's turn, writes Tim Robey, gives an unearned richness to the rest of the film
Tahar Rahim's turn, writes Tim Robey, gives an unearned richness to the rest of the film

The Mauritanian has more of a pulse than The Report, last year’s bone-dry procedural about the US Senate’s investigation into CIA torture, but there’s a feeling of being peddled old news which it periodically struggles to enliven. It’s naggingly amorphous and lacking in dramatic friction, falling too often into a docudrama no-man’s-land. A handful of bad eggs in the military may have pushed the button on ignoring Salahi’s human rights, but all these moments are redacted from the record and might as well be from the script. Neither Macdonald nor his screenwriters have wrestled Salahi’s story into riveting shape as cinema.

What lifts it to a major degree is Rahim’s performance. We know little of Salahi’s life outside Guantánamo, dealing with him as a virtual blank slate, but he fills this in with a remarkably charismatic personality, riven with contradictions, and clinging to bursts of mischievous humour as a survival strategy.

Rahim made his breakthrough behind bars, as the French-Algerian convict learning the ropes in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (2009), but we get an utterly different sense of a person here, right down to the set of his teeth, the amount of sly eye contact he makes, his persistence with the sign-off “see you later, alligator”. It’s inspired work in the rather dogged circumstances.

The Mauritanian will be released on February 26