- Emma Simmonds
- 25 February 2021
GFF 2021: Tahar Rahim is outstanding in Kevin Macdonald's take on an appalling true-life tale
French actor Tahar Rahim recently wowed a primetime television audience with his portrayal of fraudster and serial killer Charles Sobhraj in BBC's The Serpent but many will know him from more than a decade of outstanding film work, in A Prophet and The Past, for instance, and on TV in 9/11 drama The Looming Tower. He's on career-best form here, starring in Scottish director Kevin Macdonald's take on the story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi and his tooth-and-nail battle for freedom, based on Slahi's bestselling memoir.
'I like the look of this fight,' remarks ace lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) when she takes on Slahi's case, supported by junior colleague Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), and you know instantly that the prisoner has a real pit bull on his side. Following the September 11 attacks, Slahi was arrested in November 2001 in Mauritania and questioned by the FBI; after a couple of location changes, he was eventually transferred to the notorious Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba in August 2002, where he was held for years without charge.
The screenplay from MB Traven, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani isn't particularly subtle, yet the performances and overriding sense of appalling injustice are extremely powerful. If it can be strangely compelling watching Foster and Woodley comb through boxes of paperwork and their brief interactions with Slahi are satisfying, the film really does something remarkable with its sustained and remarkably immersive portrayal of the torture that Slahi endured – huge kudos to cinematographer Alwin H Küchler for his work here.
As well as an enjoyably clench-jawed Foster and more overtly compassionate Woodley, there's fine work from Benedict Cumberbatch – cast against type as US marine Stuart Couch, who's leading the prosecution of Slahi and is being called upon to deliver 'rough justice', something that challenges his conscience as a Christian. But the standout is, importantly, Rahim, who brings vast conviction to his portrayal of a man trying to hold onto his humanity, and indeed sanity, in mindbogglingly brutal circumstances.