One of the most common criticisms leveled at films as that they don’t know what they want to be; genre straddling can be an impressive feat, but far too often it leads to more disappointment and confusion than awe.

The Mauritanian is that strange case of a film that knows exactly what it wants to be — a powerful legal and prison drama with an emotional core — but doesn’t know who it wants to be about. Take the title: The Mauritanian himself is Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a man abducted from his homeland and held in the Guantanamo Bay prison for his supposed connections to 9/11.

One might have every reason to believe that Slahi would be the main character of the film — Tahar Rahim certainly plays him as much — and yet the plot actually seems to center around his activist attorney, Nancy Hollander. Even more confusingly, Jodie Foster recently won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Hollander despite the fact that she seems to actually be the lead of the film — huh!

To add confusion to more confusion, the movie also tells the story of Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), the man charged with prosecuting Slahi whose job sends him head first into a crisis of faith. Couch’s story would’ve made a fine, perhaps even better movie all on its own. Instead, it’s lumped in with the rest of The Mauritanian where it feels more like an abortive afterthought.

Director Kevin Macdonald attempts to add some stylistic verve to the show but generally just confuses the tone. The script can be at turns far too glib and far too melodramatic, leaving the audience high and dry with a sea of confused filmmaking on all sides. It’s a shame that this film stretched itself so thin trying to tell all sides of the story — one story told well can find more truth than a dozen half-told.

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