If the idea of being kidnapped and incarcerated for 14 years without being charged of any crime isn’t terrifying enough, imagine being held on an island hundreds of miles from home in a facility that epitomises horrible human rights violations.

Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian is the true-life story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a detainee at the infamous American naval base Guantanamo Bay. Slahi had been on the American government’s radar for allegedly helping recruit hijackers involved in the September 11, 2001, attacks.

In a post 9/11 world, every contact of a suspect became a suspect. The US government and its agencies were determined that “someone” should pay for that tragedy. Slahi was one such “someone”.

Adapted for the screen by Michael Bronner, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani from Slahi’s memoir Guantanamo Diary, the film opens in November 2001 in Mauritania. Slahi (Tahar Rahim) is attending a family function when he is taken away. The story moves ahead to 2005, when lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) is introduced to Slahi’s case.

Just as Hollander and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) take on Slahi’s case, the US military taps prosecutor Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch). Couch is instructed: “Rough justice is what this administration wants.”

As the lawyers on both sides begin their investigation, they gradually piece together a true picture based on Slahi’s notes, hugely redacted official documents and closely guarded uncensored reports of what Slahi was forced to endure.

Kevin Macdonald spares no punches as he depicts the torture and debasement prevalent at Guantanamo following 9/11. Slahi’s experience was not unique. He was one of hundreds to face these horrors, which are not easy to watch. Macdonald’s visualisation, the use of music, light and editing and Rahim’s visceral performance stab you in the gut.

The director changes aspect ratios and colour tones to establish Slahi’s past, his experiences at Guantanamo, and the trial. There is ironic attention to detail: a sign at the complex reads ‘Do not harm the iguanas. Penalty $10,000’. An officer goes surfing on his off days.

Filmed largely indoors and in often claustrophobic spaces, the movie isn’t always subtle, but its impact is felt particularly in the scenes featuring Rahim. His powerful performance is supported respectfully by Foster, Cumberbatch and Woodley.

But the promise of a courtroom drama is unfulfilled. The Mauritanian veers on the side of outrage, winding up around 2010, six years before Slahi was finally released. The movie’s intent is summarised in an exchange:

“Now someone has to answer for that.”

Stuart Couch: “Someone… not just anyone.”

The Mauritanian (2021).