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The Mauritanian has received mixed reviews, but I find it hard to see why anyone outside the “flog’ em, hang ’em” brigade would have a negative reaction here. It’s a nuanced and informative piece, making public the true story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), the eponymous young Mauritanian, who, suspected of links to Al Quaeda, was detained without charge at Guantanamo Bay for fourteen long years.
Kevin Macdonald’s film never points the reader in the direction of Slahi’s guilt or innocence, because that’s literally the point: we don’t know, and neither do the people who incarcerated him. Defence lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) reinforces the importance of this when she admonishes her young assistant, Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), for responding emotionally to Shahi’s written confession. ‘Everyone is entitled to a defence,’ she tells her, and, ‘Since when did this country start locking people up without a trial?’ Because Slahi has been picked up on the flimsiest of evidence, and if we lose haebus corpus then surely we lose the right to refer to our legal system as ‘justice.’
Military prosecutor Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch, who is – disconcertingly – even more convincing as a US army man than he is as an English toff) is tasked with representing the state and, initially, he’s more than willing. Shahi is accused of plotting the 9/11 terror attack, where Couch lost a close personal friend. But Couch is a man of principle, and he can’t proceed in good conscience when he realises that Shahi’s confession was coerced through torture, and that the rule of law has been abandoned. Couch wants the guilty parties to pay – but he wants to make sure they are, actually, guilty. (He’s picky like that!)
Rahim is a revelation in the central role. He is charming, erudite, angry and afraid. The torture scenes – artfully shot, hallucinatory flashbacks – are horrifying; no one, no matter what they’ve done, should be brutalised this way. Foster shines as you’d expect her to, depicting a version of Hollander that is all grim determination and moral rectitude, a fierce advocate for doing the right thing.
This isn’t an exciting film: it’s the slow, careful unveiling of an unpalatable truth – namely, that the USA is violating its own doctrine in a detention camp deliberately situated far beyond its shores. Out of sight, out of mind, seems to be the hope, but – as long as there are people like Hollander in the world – they will, hopefully, eventually, be called to account. In the meantime, there are still more than forty prisoners there, and their plight needs addressing.
The Mauritanian is well worth a few hours of your time.