Guy Somerset watches as a French actor’s stunning performance puts Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch in the shade in The Mauritanian

Spoiler alert: the Americans did some bad shit at Gitmo.

A lot of The Mauritanian hinges on defence attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and military prosecutor Lt Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) coming from different sides at unravelling what has been done to, and by, Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim), the Mauritanian of the film’s title.

The thriller aspect to this, however, is somewhat undermined by the fact any half-informed viewer will already have a pretty good idea as to the answer to at least the first part of this ‘mystery’.

And, given Salahi is a real-life figure and the film is based on his bestselling and much-reported-on memoir Guantánamo Diary, there’s a fair chance viewers will also know the specifics of his particular case and experience of the US military detention camp established after 9/11 as part of President George W Bush’s War on Terror.

All of which leads one to wonder why director Kevin (One Day in September, The Last King of Scotland) Macdonald and his screenwriters chose to structure The Mauritanian, and Hollander’s and Couch’s encountering of a conspiracy to keep a lid on Gitmo’s goings on, as a thriller rather than accepting viewers’ prior knowledge and playing more to the film’s strengths.

These are many and foremost among them is Rahim’s performance as Salahi. Real-life footage of Salahi during the closing credits shows that Rahim didn’t conjure his depiction from thin air, but nonetheless he and the screenplay from which he works capture perfectly Salahi’s mix of charm, sweetness, humility and abiding belief in Islam and religious principles that enable him to forgive, when he himself could be forgiven, for wishing eternal damnation on his torturers. 

Screenwriters MB Traven (aka Michael Bronner), Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani have a strong track record in this area, having variously written or contributed in other ways to notable productions such as the BBC series Informer, several 9/11 documentaries and writer-director Paul Greengrass’s film United 93.

Jodie Foster as defence attorney in The Mauritanian. Photo: Supplied

Their screenplay is constructed as stories within stories within stories. Despite occasional lapses into elementary exposition (“Mauritania? North-west Africa”), it deftly teases out the contours of Salahi’s character (with viewers’ suspicions about his charm serving the thriller conceit the film insists on) and the absurdities and inefficiencies of the detention and interrogation ‘special measures’ the US military set in place with sign-off at the highest level of government.

And talking of Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary’s notorious Rumsfeldisms (“There are known unknowns”) are echoed more than once in the film, including in the response when Foster’s Hollander tries to establish if Salahi is even in Guantánamo: “He’s not not there.”

The stonewalling continues, for Hollander and Cumberbatch’s Couch alike, the prosecutor wanting allegations that will stand up in court and finding instead ‘evidence’ made a mockery of by the methods by which it has been gathered.

Hollander is sent boxes and boxes – 20,000 pages’ worth – of completely redacted files (suggesting the US military involved might as readily be prosecuted for their contribution to climate change as their violations of human rights).

Couch is told there are the doctored interview records he and eventually Hollander have been shown and then there are the full MFRs (memoranda for record) that contain the “raw stuff” for the intelligence community.

Raw indeed and not for the squeamish, these reveal the rubbish ‘evidence’ you get when prisoners will say and admit to anything to make the torture stop.

One prisoner gives up the name Omar Sharif. “The Americans don’t know shit that isn’t American.”

The film can get a bit Aaron Sorkin on us, with Hollander proclaiming “I’m not just defending him, I’m defending the rule of law” and “The constitution doesn’t have an asterisk – ‘terms and conditions apply’”.

But it shows her high-mindedness coming at the expense, initially at least, of making a human connection with those she represents, in contrast to her assistant, Keri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), who has the opposite trouble: over-investing in the human aspect of clients at the expense of the detachment necessary to defend those who may well be guilty.

Foster and Cumberbatch (the British actor sporting a Southern drawl) are as good as you would expect and are the names on the bill that will pull in punters.

But it is Rahim (a French actor of Algerian descent) who will keep you glued to your seat.

He was nominated for a Golden Globe and a British Academy Film Award, but missed out, with the rest of the film, in the Oscar nominations. 

This has led to The Mauritanian being described as ‘snubbed’ for the Oscars, the media’s preferred word for anyone or thing that misses out on an award nomination, suggesting a degree of active disdain and rejection when the reality is probably more often less ennobling: someone or thing simply didn’t register as memorable with the judges.

Given what he has been able to forgive at Guantánamo Bay, Salahi will probably take the Oscars ‘snub’ on the chin. And, given the penchant for the E! channel he picked up from his American captors (“You should learn English from your books, not the Kards”), he’ll probably be watching the ceremony next month anyway. 

The Mauritanian (Amazon Prime Video from 24 March).

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