GFF REVIEW: ‘The Mauritanian’ (2021) Levels Up The Conventional Legal Drama

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“A deeply engaging and enraging piece of work”

What is it about legal dramas that make them so fascinating? So endlessly entertaining? Watching smart people talking to each other and reading redacted government documents doesn’t sound inherently cinematic – but when the stakes are as high as they are in a true story like that of The Mauritanian, it’s hardly surprising that the result is so effective.

The Mauritanian in question is Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), the man accused of recruiting the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks. When defence lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) first picks up his case, Mohamedou has already been locked up in Guantanamo Bay for three years without a trial, or even being charged. The film follows Nancy and fellow lawyer Teri (Shailene Woodley) as they fight through seemingly endless red tape to bring Mohamedou to court, so a judge can finally decide whether the evidence against him is lawful or not, as well as exposing Mohamedou’s horrific experiences whilst imprisoned.

After a short prologue that introduces Mohamedou in a family setting just before he’s arrested, The Mauritanian kicks off as one might expect. Once we get into the meat of the movie, however, director Kevin Macdonald really flexes his muscles. Flashbacks of Mohamedou’s time in Guantanamo are grainy and blurry, using extreme close ups. They appear to be shot on film, and in a square aspect ratio – the black walls of the screen literally closing in on him. This, contrasted with the sharp, widescreen brightness of the present day scenes gives his memories a tactile sense of history; an almost dreamlike quality, that ends up more like a nightmare. 

Two lawyers are at a desk that is covered with papers in an empty courtroom. One is stood, the other is sat, looking at her colleague.
Jodie Foster & Shailene Woodley in ‘The Mauritanian’ / Image courtesy of STX Films / Glasgow Film Festival

The sensory overload peaks during a truly disturbing montage showing the kind of abuse Mohamedou faced once he was handed over to military intelligence and they received authorization to use ‘special measures’ to coerce a confession out of him. These measures include strobe lights, blasting heavy metal music at a deafening volume for hours on end, a freezing cold cell, being forced to stand up, sexual assault, beatings and more. Watching even ten minutes of this on screen feels like a lifetime; going through it for 70 days, as he did, is unimaginable. 

Rahim carries the emotional weight of the film remarkably well, balancing Mohamedou’s endearing, optimistic charm with an understandable hardness and sometimes aggression, particularly in the first act, keeping his lawyers and the viewer guessing as to his true nature. Foster is sublime as always, combining striking grey hair, dark lipstick and withering takedowns with an irrefutable commitment to justice, though Nancy’s character could have done with a little more substance to her than simply being the snarky, workaholic lawyer. 

Further support comes from Woodley as Teri, who does a fine job with the few key moments she has. Her initial connection with Mohamedou is particularly lovely, and Teri often provides the perspective of the viewer when showing naivete, concerns about Nancy’s methods, or questioning Mohamedou’s innocence. Benedict Cumberbatch embraces a pretty darn good Southern accent as Stu Crouch, the Colonel and lawyer given the task of prosecuting Mohamedou. Like Nancy, his strong moral core implores him to dig a little deeper into the case, despite his loyalty to his country and lasting grief for a friend who died in the 9/11 attacks.

A soldier is sat in a dark room looking intensely at a piece of paper.
Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘The Mauritanian’ / Image courtesy of STX Films / Glasgow Film Festival

Though The Mauritanian does bring more to the table than a completely conventional courtroom drama through its juxtaposition of visual styles and immersive physicality, it does give in to using much broader strokes at times. The dialogue sometimes feels unnatural, bending out of shape to create inauthentic tension; the score is unnecessarily saccharine and swooning, often not showing confidence that the drama in this story is already impactful enough; and there’s a brief scene with Colonel Crouch in church, reckoning with his moral quandary regarding Mohamedou’s case, that has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. 

Slight quibbles aside, The Mauritanian is a deeply engaging and enraging piece of work. It highlights the danger of a country seeking vengeance at all costs, no matter how terrible the provocation. It uses the experience of cinema to put us in shackles, and give us a glimpse of just how dehumanising it is to be imprisoned. And, just as Mohamedou does during a particularly tense meeting with Nancy, it reminds us that those behind bars are more than just headlines, or a stereotype, or a ‘case’ – they are people, and deserve to be treated as such, no matter who they are or what they’re accused of.

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Producers: Adam Ackland, Leah Clarke, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lloyd Levin, Beatriz Levin, Mark Holder

Cast: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch

Header image courtesy of STX Films / Glasgow Film Festival