The Mauritanian, review: Cumberbatch in Guantánamo is no-one’s idea of a thrill

  • Dir: Kevin Macdonald. Cast: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Levi, Corey Johnson, Matthew Marsh. 15 cert, 129 mins

Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian is a legal thriller of sorts, but one with a timeline that sets about defeating suspense: a 14-year incarceration without trial at Guantánamo would squeeze the hope, or second-act tension, out of anyone’s life story. It follows Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim), a detainee from Mauritania who was placed in US Government custody two months after 9/11, as part of the CIA’s program of extraordinary rendition. While in prison, he wrote a tell-all memoir, published as Guantánamo Diary a year before he was finally released.

Pursuing the idea that he was a major figure in al Qaeda’s recruitment drive, the authorities had little to go on except old connections and family ties. In the early 1990s, when barely out of his teens, Salahi had trained with al Qaeda to help topple the communist government of Najibullah in Afghanistan, a coup the US were actually backing at the time. Meanwhile, his cousin was a spiritual adviser to Osama bin Laden and therefore another person of interest, though he had opposed the 9/11 attacks and left al Qaeda soon after they occurred.

No matter: sifting through this kind of fog of motivation was exactly the purpose Guantánamo was designed to serve, even if years and years drag by on screen, with ever-worsening interrogation methods, and nothing concrete materialises. Salahi might still be there if it weren’t for his legal team, headed pro bono by a formidable defence attorney called Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), who flies to Cuba with a colleague to do the translating (Shailene Woodley). They’re surprised to find that Salahi, resourceful in his rather antic way, has picked up a solid grasp of English from the guards and fellow prisoners.

While these two organise his defence, it falls to a military prosecutor called Lt Col Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) to bring him to trial, with evidence that could be described as circumstantial at best – like Salahi deleting all the numbers off his phone, to protect family members, in the moments before his arrest. Everything hinges on a confession the military has up its sleeve.

More Stories
Victory for cladding victims as Lords vote to protect leaseholders from crippling safety costs