Cinematic Releases: The Mauritanian (2021) - Reviewed


Scottish director Kevin Macdonald of The Last King of Scotland and Black Sea recently released the crowd sourced documentary film Life in a Day 2020, a sequel to his 2011 YouTube film chronicling life affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the George Floyd protests and so on.  Only released last week online, Macdonald swiftly followed that film up with his return to the silver screen, The Mauritanian.  A searing legal drama based on Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s (Tahar Rahim) 2015 memoir Guantanamo Diary, The Mauritanian tells the story of Salahi’s experience of being held prisoner in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp without charge and only the loosest thinly veiled affiliation with the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. 
Assigned his case by defense attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), the two meet with Salahi and upon taking the case are met with a tidal wave of hostilities from both the victims of the 9/11 attacks as well as suppression of evidence from the US Government.  Meanwhile Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) is tasked with mounting the military prosecution against Salahi, a God fearing man who quickly learns there’s a lot more in the way of false or contradictory evidence as well as human rights abuses involved in this case than he initially realized. 

In addition to being a powerfully acted and written piece, The Mauritanian proves to be a brilliantly photographed and framed picture as well.  Shot by Danny Boyle’s cinematographer Alwin H. K├╝chler, the film shifts freely between 2.35:1 panoramic widescreen with claustrophobic and gritty looking flashbacks pillarboxed at 1.33:1.  While shifting aspect ratios has become commonplace thanks to filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, the effect here adds to the sense of suffocating imprisonment, making you the viewer share with Salahi in feeling trapped with no breathing room.  Also aiding the film’s menacing atmosphere is the original soundtrack by Tom Hodge who gives the film a somber but hopeful mood tinted occasionally by bursts of terror.
Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch give strong performances, as always, being two of the finest actors of their time and getting to see them together onscreen is exciting.  The real weight of this picture however is carried by Tahar Rahim who shoulders the film’s heaviest moments told in the present and in flashbacks.  The scenes recalling the abuses committed against him during his detention are really disturbing and not to be taken lightly.  The end of the film reveals footage of the real Mohamedou Ould Salahi which only makes the whole endeavor resonate that much more. 

A powerful but ultimately rewarding drama that will leave you feeling shaken by what you’ve seen, The Mauritanian went on to receive numerous Golden Globe nominations.  For all involved it is one of the year’s strongest legal dramas and a still moving true story of one man’s journey through Hell and back and those who fought to bring his ordeal to light.  Foster, Cumberbatch and Rahim are brilliant in the film which itself is a technical tour de force.  Not always an easy film to watch but one you won’t soon forget.

--Andrew Kotwicki