No one expects—or wants—director Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell And The Butterfly) to put his material before himself. But in adapting Miral, a semi-autobiographical novel by Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal, he often seems to be transcribing rather than directing, plodding doggedly through the story’s half-century history lesson. There’s no quarreling with Schnabel’s cast, though, especially the great actress Hiam Abbass (The Syrian Bride) as Hind Husseini, a stately Palestinian woman who opens a school in Jerusalem to take in the orphans of the Deir Yassin massacre. Her emphasis is on nation-building in miniature, creating strong, well-educated Israeli Arabs to strengthen their people through non-violent means. Even after the advent of the first intifada, she orders her students to stay out of politics, more as a matter of pragmatism than principle. But when a girl left in Hind’s care by her father (Alexander Siddig) grows into a headstrong teenager named Miral (Freida Pinto), her rules become harder to enforce.
Schnabel duly takes note of the injustices and humiliations visited upon Hind and Miral, from endless military checkpoints to beatings in captivity, but his attempts to rouse the audience’s conscience mostly fall flat. Rather than focusing on specific or surprising details that might awaken fresh outrage, Schnabel goes broad and dull, as if he’d only just discovered the situation and hadn’t had time to suss it out fully. Although it isn’t a particularly magnetic performance, Pinto gets by on impetuousness and sullen charm; the character is meant to be more passionate than articulate, so the shallowness of her performance mimics Miral’s still-forming responses. (In spite of their different nationalities, she’s a dead ringer for Jebreal.) Willem Dafoe’s brief cameo as an American G.I. is mildly disruptive, in that it creates greater expectations for the character than he ends up fulfilling, but Vanessa Redgrave’s fleeting turn as a pro-Palestinian activist dovetails neatly with her own political past.
Miral has been chided for its one-sidedness, but the perspective it most lacks isn’t political. Schnabel seems cowed by his subject matter, and it doesn’t help that Jebreal adapted her own book. There’s no one to impose a shape on the film, to turn it from a well-meaning but vague coming-of-age story into a story that fully engages the region’s complexities. People will agree or disagree with it, sometimes violently, but it’s unlikely any of them will be stirred to rethink their views.