Directed by Kevin Macdonald and written by Michael Bronner, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani, Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim) fights for freedom after being detained and imprisoned without charge by the U.S. Government for years. Also starring: Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley and Zachary Levi.
One of the first impressions that this film gives is that it’s the type of film used as awards bait, and usually that means it’s not actually very good but this is an exception to that rule. The Mauritanian is a slow burning political drama but one that is superb at holding your attention. Its style for the most part is surprisingly low key, it isn’t full of the typically sharp, fast editing you might find with this sort of film. For the majority, it lets the story do the work, it’s still well shot with a strong visual but it’s not until its last 20-minutes or so that the style breaks out and packs a punch. It finally gets to the point where they embrace the darkness and deeply disturbing nature of this story. It’s both a visual and thematic revelation for the film, doubling down on the impact and cutting to the heart of the issue.
A key worry with the telling of this story is landing yourself in white saviour territory and while it can’t avoid that entirely, it never strays from the path that this is Mohamedou’s story. It starts out being unclear what side of his character falls on, whether he’s telling the truth or just taking his one shot at getting out. It’s one of the reasons why the pacing works so well because unless you’re already aware of the true story behind the film, you’re hanging on to find out and it gradually reveals more for you to piece it together. However, it may not work for everyone, it does take a while to really dive into the more complex elements. There’s also an aspect to that gradual, rather simple style that doesn’t allow it to feel quite as sincere and genuine as the story calls for.
That’s not to say that the actors themselves don’t bring great sincerity, this is a hugely talented cast and they’re thrilling to watch. Tahar Rahim’s performance as Mohamedou is exceptional, not only does he have the weight of doing justice to the real man but he’s also a complicated character. He succeeds easily on both counts, what begins as a mystery turns into an unbelievable tale of strength and resilience, that’s inspiring to watch. Jodie Foster is brilliant as always, granted the awards buzz may surprise people given the more played down, slightly cold approach to her character but stick with her and she has more layers to reveal. Cumberbatch, Woodley and Levi are all stellar support. It’s very interesting to see Cumberbatch in a much more buttoned up, religious and old-fashioned values type character and he’s surprisingly good at it, considering he so often plays large, unusual personalities.
The Mauritanian may look like just your typical politically driven drama but there’s a lot more to get out of it, if you give it a chance. The choice of style is not perfect, it does what it needs to do and hits a stronger note towards the end but the story is gripping and both disturbing and inspiring which is impressive. The performances from Rahim and Foster are fantastic, they bring together such different personalities but are thrilling to watch opposite one another. This is a story that truly deserves to be told, Mohamedou’s experience is horrifying and his resilience in spite of that is incredible.