Kevin Macdonald’s latest is often so ponderous and mild as to feel inert, but whenever Tahar Rahim is on screen, The Mauritanian finds its centre
The Mauritanian splits its time between three threads: Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim) who languishes in Guantanamo Bay for years, without charge or trial; his new allies, defence attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley); and military prosecutor Lt. Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is tasked with bringing Slahi to trial, but finds more questions than answers when looking into this supposed terrorist mastermind.
In The Last King of Scotland, director Kevin Macdonald blended fact and fiction and gave us a pulpy, compelling film about the horrors enacted by Idi Amin. Here, he takes a leaf out of Paul Greengrass’ book and frequently shoots in a loose shaky-cam fashion, and takes a much more sober, stately and staid approach. But where Greengrass can imbue quieter moments with the same sense of immediacy and tension as sequences of high bombast, here the film’s depressingly frequent chat-and-a coffee scenes are so ponderous and mild as to feel inert.
Fortunately, the film has an ace in the hole in the shape of Tahar Rahim, who has been stealing the show in everything he’s done since BAFTA winner A Prophet. Whenever he’s onscreen, the film finds its centre. What Slahi goes through is horrifying, and although it’s been better detailed elsewhere (most notably in Zero Dark Thirty and The Report), the humanity Rahim brings to it is a fresh and much-needed perspective.
The Mauritanian is released 26 Feb by EROS STX, and screens at Glasgow Film Festival 25-28 Feb