Review: Rahim quietly steals 'Mauritanian' from Foster, Cumberbatch

Drama looks at accused 9/11 hijacker's 14 years in Guantanamo Bay

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Big stars Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch headline "The Mauritanian," but it's the performance at the center from Tahar Rahim that centers and grounds the film. 

Rahim plays Mohamedou Ould Salahi, the Mauritanian of the fact-based tale's title, who is arrested following 9/11 and accused of being one of the masterminds behind the terrorist attacks. He's detained in Guantanamo Bay where he's sent to rot and held without trial or charges for 14 grueling years, during which he faces merciless torture and atrocities. 

Jodie Foster in "The Mauritanian."

Foster plays Nancy Hollander, a defense attorney who thinks something with Salahi's case is amiss; regardless of whether he's guilty, she's fighting against the due process, or lack thereof, that put him there. Cumberbatch is Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch, a prosecutor assigned to the case, whose duty to country is called into question when he learns of the gaping holes in the defendant's case. 

Director Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland") parses out his story elements slowly, keeping Salahi's innocence in question as Hollander and her assistant, Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) pore over the (mostly redacted) documents relating to the case. "The Mauritanian" has the elements of a slow-burn government thriller, and Macdonald slowly turns up the heat, never boiling over or steering into overwrought or grandstanding territory. 

His anchor is Rahim, who turns in a quiet, reserved performance, even as he seamlessly switches between several languages (he speaks French, English and Arabic, all fluently) and carries the film's emotional weight. It's the kind of under-the-radar work that gets overshadowed by flashier awards season performances but which forms the base of a solid career. His foundation is set.


'The Mauritanian'


Rated R: for violence including a sexual assault, and language

Running time: 129 minutes