Tahar Rahim gives the film performance of the year in “The Mauritanian” as Mohamedou Ould Salahi. The docudrama set in the early 2000s depicts the imprisonment-without-charge of Salahi at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. STX will release the film on February 12, which qualifies it for awards consideration against the films from 2020, due to the global pandemic prompting an extension of the eligibility period.
For portraying Salahi’s real-life American lawyer Nancy Hollander, two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster is back in the awards conversation for the first time in nine years for her acting — since her Golden Globe Award-nominated performance in the black comedy film “Carnage.” She ranks 10th in Gold Derby’s racetrack odds for a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars.
Her comeback is welcome, but Rahim is the one whose performance in “The Mauritanian” has more potential to drum up passion among awards voters — hopefully all the way to a deserved Best Actor win. Metacritic admittedly notes that critics have thus far responded with “mixed or average reviews” to the film overall, but Rotten Tomatoes takes care to distinguish Rahim in their statement on the critical consensus: ” ‘The Mauritanian’ takes a frustratingly bland approach to a real-life story that might have been inspirational in other hands, but Tahar Rahim’s performance elevates the uneven material.”
The late release precluded the film from competing at the regional critic awards that kicked off this historically long winter awards season, but Rahim finally earned a nomination from the London Film Critics Circle, which had nominated him 10 years earlier in the same category for his breakthrough in “A Prophet,” the French nominee at the Oscars for Best International Feature. BAFTA recognized Rahim with a nomination for their Rising Star Award. The London Film Critics also nominated “The Mauritanian” for Best Picture and Best Director for Kevin Macdonald (the Oscar winner behind “The Last King of Scotland,” for which Forest Whitaker won the Oscar for Best Actor of 2006).
That the London critics responded better to the film than any of their American counterparts suggests that this American story might resonate more to international viewers, like the Golden Globe-voting members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (and BAFTA down the line). The London Film Critics found common ground with the Globes and BAFTA with films like “First Man” and “Three Billboard Across Ebbing, Missouri” in recent years that similarly told stories that were decidedly American, but apparently did so with international sensibilities, as they performed disproportionately worse with the Oscars and American regional critics. In addition to its Mauritanian protagonist played by a French actor, this film hails from a Scottish director and counts English Benedict Cumberbatch as both a producer and a supporting actor, in the role of the American attorney charged with prosecuting Salahi.
Rahim is exactly the kind of star that the Globes pride themselves on recognizing. Although it has been 11 years since he won Best Actor at the European Film Awards for “A Prophet,” Rahim remains relatively unknown in the United States, having acted mostly in French across his career. This allows the Globes the opportunity to plant their flag in introducing him to American audiences and awards. The Globes went so far as to award the likes of Gael García Bernal, Olivia Colman and Isabelle Huppert in recent years on their first Globe nominations — several years after they had been first nominated by BAFTA and started winning awards from major international organizations.
Although Rahim ranks 36th in the Oscar race according to the combined predictions of Gold Derby’s Experts, Editors and Users, he places eighth at the Globes for the Best Film Drama Actor category. Foster has the same position in Best Film Supporting Actress.
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