STXfilms has decided to enter this unconventional awards season with a mighty and timely drama, “The Mauritanian,” formerly called “Prisoner 760,” from Scottish director Kevin Macdonald. The film will be released on Feb. 19, 2021, and could echo the same late-breaking awards success that past movies like “Million Dollar Baby” were able to execute. With an impressive cast that includes Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch and Shailene Woodley, the inspiring true story could resonate with AMPAS voters, especially its large international membership.
“The Mauritanian” tells the true story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Rahim), who was held captive and tortured by the U.S. government in Guantanamo Bay detention camp for 10 years without a charge or trial. Losing faith, he finds hope in defense attorney Nancy Hollander (Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Woodley), who face countless legal obstacles in their pursuit of justice.
I was able to view an unfinished version of the film, and it has the goods to be a game-changer this season. Macdonald is no stranger to the awards circuit, winning an Oscar for best documentary feature for 1999’s “One Day in September.” He also directed Forest Whitaker to his Academy Award-winning performance as Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland” in 2006. Macdonald won the BAFTA Award for best British film. He orchestrates the taut and emotionally driven story with fervor and a delicate hand, one that he’s never fully exhibited before. Much of that sympathy is embedded in the screenplay by M.B. Traven, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani, who adapt from Slahi’s New York Times best-seller “Guantanamo Diary.” The unveiling of the facts and impassioned beats put it in a prime position for adapted screenplay contention.
Macdonald has an undeniable way with his actors, and the film’s beating heart is in the work of star Rahim. Confirmed to be submitted for best actor consideration, if he were to manage a nomination, his inclusion would be historic as the first Muslim to be nominated in any lead category. Omar Sharif (1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia”), Shohreh Aghdashloo (2003’s “House of Sand and Fog”) and Mahershala Ali (who won for 2016’s “Moonlight” and 2018’s “Green Book”) are the only three previous Muslims to be nominated in the acting categories, all in supporting. Rahim had his breakout in Jacques Audiard’s Oscar-nominated “The Prophet” before garnering additional raves in Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past,” a performance that should have landed him an Oscar nomination.
Two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster (1989’s “The Accused” and 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs”) is simply electric as Hollander in a transformative performance, one that could put the film in the mix for best makeup and hairstyling. It’s been 25 years since she was nominated for “Nell,” and with a confirmed supporting actress campaign ahead, the veteran could mount an awards comeback. She’s flirted with Oscar’s attention in that time, nabbing Golden Globe nominations for “Contact,” “The Brave One” and “Carnage.” In 2013, she was honored with the Cecil B. DeMille Award by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Coincidentally, her Oscar-winning co-star Anthony Hopkins (“The Father”) is also well positioned for awards love, which could give us a Hannibal Lecter/Clarice Starling reunion at the ceremony.
Oscar nominee Cumberbatch (“The Imitation Game”) as prosecutor Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch and Woodley will also be submitted in supporting categories.
The harrowing but ultimately triumphant tale has a high-pedigree technical team behind the camera. Macdonald brings back his longtime film editor Justin Wright, who has collaborated with him on all of his works, including “Touching the Void.” Oscar winner Alexandra Byrne (“Elizabeth: The Golden Age”) assembles the costumes while Oscar nominee Michael Carlin (“The Duchess”) provides the production design. Cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler could find himself in the mix for his first nomination, especially after demonstrating great skills in films like “Sunshine,” “Hanna” and “Steve Jobs.”
Relative newcomer Tom Hodge is conducting the final score of the film. His most recent work was on the BBC/AMC crime drama “McMafia.”
Former Universal Pictures Chairman Adam Fogelson and his team have found financial successes with past movies such as “Bad Moms” and “The Gentlemen.” STX had even dipped its toes in the Oscar pool before with Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut “Molly’s Game,” which was nominated for best adapted screenplay, and Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers,” which was famously snubbed for best supporting actress last year for Jennifer Lopez. The studio has produced critically acclaimed films like Joel Edgerton’s “The Gift.”
“The Mauritanian” is produced by Adam Ackland, Leah Clarke, Cumberbatch, Lloyd Levin, Beatriz Levin, Mark Holder, Christine Holder, Branwen Prestwood Smith and Michael Bronner.
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