Review: The Mauritanian (2021)

Director: Kevin Macdonald
Screenwriters: Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani
Starring: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Levi
Genres: Drama, Thriller
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence including a sexual assault, and language
Release Dates: 2/12/21 (Theatres); 3/2/21 (Streaming)
Runtime: 2h 9min
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 73%
Where to Watch: Rent/Buy
Oscar Nomination(s): Possible–Picture, Actor (Rahim), Supporting Actress (Foster); Long-Shot–Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography 

I was fortunate to get to watch a screening (through The Hollywood Reporter) of The Mauritanian, one of the last movies to be released during this incredibly long awards season. It’s a very powerful story, directed by veteran filmmaker Kevin Macdonald, featuring a couple of solid performances but is inconsistent in its story and execution. 

The Mauritanian is based on the true story of a Muslim man from Mauritanian who was incarcerated and brought to Guantanamo, where he was tortured and treated like a murderer, all without ever being officially charged of a crime. He ended up being imprisoned for 14 years, and was only freed a few years ago. And, yet, despite everything he went through, he remained positive and kind, and he’s apparently still friends with one of his former prison guards. This film is based on the memoir that he wrote, and it’s one of the few films — if perhaps the only —   that shows what it was like to be a prisoner at Guantanamo. We saw a bit of the torturing in Zero Dark Thirty, but not from a prisoner’s perspective. Macdonald aims to change that with his film, which would’ve been best if it focused solely on the principal character, played to perfection by French actor (A Prophet) Tahar Rahim. 

The movie is called The Mauritanian, so it would’ve made sense to spend even more time on him than on the other, supporting characters. But, when you have such acclaimed actors as Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch, you’d feel the need to give them more screen time. This actually does a disservice to the narrative, and I found Rahim’s scenes to be the most compelling and interesting overall. That’s not a knock on Foster, who is solid (but not award-worthy, as the HFPA seemed to think) as a super-confident, determined lawyer who takes on this difficult case. Surprisingly, Cumberbatch gives a fairly bland, almost-bad performance, something I didn’t think he could do. He scenes felt unnecessary, and I totally didn’t buy his Southern accent. Macdonald has said that he auditioned other actors but Cumberbatch, who’s also a producer, decided to take on the role himself (bad idea). Shailene Woodley, as the other attorney involved in the case, is okay, but she isn’t really given much to do. She also has some of the cringiest dialogue I the movie, especially in a scene that causes her abrupt departure. 

But, back to Rahim for a moment: If the Best Actor race wasn’t already so stacked — with the late Chadwick Boseman the front-runner — I’d say he’d easily get in there, especially after his recent Globes and BAFTA nominations. Without him, the movie wouldn’t work at all. He’s heartbreaking and emotional when the role requires it, but also charming and likable, just the real-life person he’s portraying. Rahim has also been upfront about the lengths he went in which to prepare for the role, which included losing weight and requesting to be placed in conditions similar to what would’ve been experienced as a prisoner at Guantanamo. He speaks several languages (including his native French) and has some great moments with Foster, but often he’s at his most impressive in his solo acting moments. There’s a speech he gives at the end that’s exceedingly heartfelt and real.

Overall, it’s a flawed movie, but it’s worth watching just for Rahim’s impressive, no-holds-barred performance, and to see Foster play a real [living] person for the first time in her long, illustrious career.