Director: Julian Schnabel
Writer: Rula Jebreal
Cinematographer: Éric Gautier
Starring: Freida Pinto, Hiam Abbass, Willem Dafoe, Vanessa Redgrave
Studio/Runtime: The Weinstein Company/112 min.
There’s nothing wrong with making a film for personal reasons. In fact, I might argue that they should always be made for personal reasons. The best movies, like the best books or paintings or whatever else, are works of passion. Unfortunately, though, while passion can drive you, it can also blind you to truly seeing what you’re creating, which is almost certainly the case with Julian Schnabel’s Miral.
Schnabel has made no secret that Miral is a love letter to his current partner Rula Jebreal, whose book by the same name it’s adapted from. It’s marketed as a movie created out of their bond, and both the film’s semi-autobiographical nature and semi-controversial politics are a reflection of what Schnabel felt was important. The director’s affection for its subject matter is obvious throughout, but while Miral may succeed as an ode to its muse, but will disappoint most anyone else.
Having not read any of Jebreal’s books, I can’t comment on her prose. But I can safely say she’s a terrible screenwriter. Authors often find it hard not to stick close to what worked in book form when adapting their own works, but that doesn’t excuse how execrably bad the result is. Nearly every problem with the film can be laid at the hands of its writing, which Schnabel seems to have doggedly followed when he should’ve greatly streamlined the picture.
Miral is almost plotless, simply recounting events in the Israeli-Palestinian border that occurred to a couple of key characters, much of it focused on an all-girls orphanage. The film clocks in at under two hours but its title character isn’t introduced until after the 30-minute mark. And while important, the backstory includes strange digressions and subplots that lead nowhere. If you were wondering, for instance, what Willem Dafoe’s character is doing in the picture, don’t expect Miral to answer your question—he just pops in a couple times at random and is never heard from again.
Once Miral is finally introduced she’s never given a real psychology or reasoning for her actions, and the film portrays her turn towards radicalization as less of a political stance and more of a late-teenage rebellion. She ever-so-slowly becomes a small-time terrorist for Palestinian rights, but the story just lurches forward through random moments of her life in an almost picaresque fashion. And the film’s sudden ending has little to do with Miral herself but rather a supporting character who barely features in the second half of the film.
Schnabel’s enough of a visually great director that even while being hamstrung with such an awkward plot he may have been able to pull something meaningful out had it not been for the dialogue. Characters talk in odd-feeling declarative sentences that seem, frankly, to have been poorly translated into English. Their robotic speech rarely seems natural and hinders Freida Pinto’s lead performance, making her character seem just as awkward and ill-fitting as her dialogue. The constantly expository nature makes the film feel like it was directed from a rough draft.
The film’s politics lack an ounce of nuance or subtlety and its characters feel like devices to express those views rather than real people. Schnabel may be trying to cover up for how fake everything feels by filming the entire picture in a jittery handheld, but it only makes things feel even messier and less complete.
Miral still looks pretty, which should surprise no one, but that’s really the only part of the film that works. It’s hard to believe that Schnabel wouldn’t see the film’s flaws from miles away—he’s proven before that he knows what real people sound like and what the shape of a story needs to be. But he seems to have shut that part of his brain off for Miral, and the result is a film that’s dull, pointless and overwrought.