Tuesday 30 March 2021

Locked down again: "The Mauritanian"

If it's awards season, Hollywood's Liberal Handwringers Unit must have prepared a foursquare legal drama for us: a film espousing a set of values that are obvious from the outset, underlined by the inevitable outcome, and hardly challenged in between. Last year's entry was the naggingly underpowered Just Mercy, which didn't catch fire as its makers presumably hoped. This year, we've already had The Trial of the Chicago 7, which - as overseen by Aaron Sorkin, one of the High Creators of this form - has wound up on the Academy's Best Picture shortlist. The Mauritanian - which has many of the makings of a front-rank handwringer - has missed out, although if anything it's even more foursquare than the sometimes wobbly Sorkin movie. Tahar Rahim plays Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the eponymous little guy arrested by U.S. forces and thrown into Gitmo in 2002 on the vague, unproven charge he was a recruiter for the 9/11 hijackers; he would spend the next decade wearing an orange jumpsuit. Jodie Foster plays his Bush-bashing pro bono lawyer Nancy Hollander; Shailene Woodley her underling Teri Duncan, originally recruited as a translator, only to discover that everybody on screen speaks Hollywood-movie English; and Benedict Cumberbatch plays Stuart Couch, prosecuting lawyer for the U.S. Army, who - though close friends with the widow of one of the United 93 victims - went to the trouble of properly examining the case, and wound up giving the defence a helping hand. America, eh?

The director is Kevin Macdonald, whose filmography became far less exciting over the 2010s than it was back in the Noughties. He approaches this material with his usual intelligence and good intentions - the script (by M.B. Traven, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani, adapting Slahi's memoir Guantanamo Diary) takes a particular care to honour its Muslim protagonist's faith - only to succumb to a familiar handwringer clunkiness. The interrogation provides the excuse to get into Slahi's backstory, a not wholly successful attempt to dynamise a movie where the title character isn't going anywhere, and everybody else is sat around in small rooms talking or waiting for (predictable) verdicts to come in. For a while, we can draw some consolation from the fact this is an Interrogation of a Star in the Making. Since his breakthrough a decade ago in Jacques Audiard's Cannes-wowing A Prophet, Rahim has gone shrewdly international: he was especially good as the troubled CIA operative at the centre of Alex Gibney and Dan Futterman's road-to-9/11 miniseries The Leaning Tower. Now on the other side of the table, Rahim uses Slahi's many years and scenes in lockdown to suggest a man being not radicalised so much as Americanised, scattering his speech with TV references and maintaining a slangy conversational style in the face of Gitmo-rough handling. The pacing's such a plod I began wondering whether the whole film might be read as a parable of the way overseas performers are routinely scooped up and retrained by voraciously colonising film industries, and thereafter made subject to all manner of grim indignities - Macdonald's torture scenes are especially garish, though arguably no worse than the real thing - but you'd need far more supplementary imagination than The Mauritanian displays to firm that speculation up.

In truth, everybody's doing okay work with the material they've been handed; these performers know their places in this schema, and they get on with filling them. In a characterisation only ever really defined as The Type Of Character Jodie Foster Would Play, Foster is briskly authoritative, nurturing and toughening up Woodley's fresh-faced loose end as the appeals process drags on; Nancy Hollander is, ultimately, the type of character Jodie Foster plays rather well. Floating a (to these ears) pretty good Southern accent, Cumberbatch gets even more wriggle room, scene by scene. His Couch, by far the most developed character here, is revealed as someone who isn't necessarily set in his ways, and who finally demonstrates altogether more flexibility than his military garb might suggest. Perhaps only a Brit would have thought (or dared) to cast a Brit as the American national conscience - firmly moral, yet searching and open to at least the idea of course correction - but that's what Stu Couch is. "Someone has to pay for [the 9/11 attacks]," growls one Army colleague. "Someone," rebuts Couch. "Not just anyone." (It comes over as movie dialogue, but it's halfway decent movie dialogue, for once.) Yet just as Slahi found himself at the mercy of The System, so too these fine performers are prisoners of material that's either been concreted into the middle of the road or simply winds up getting lodged there. In the end, it's almost exactly what you'd get if you inputted this damning chapter of recent history into a computer and invited it to generate awards bait that could proceed from the words "Based on a True Story". At least the Sorkin movie had Sorkinisms.

The Mauritanian will be available to stream via Prime Video from Thursday.

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