Told over a period of some forty-seven years, Julian Schnabel’s Miral (2010) recounts the life of a young woman growing up in Israeli-occupied Palestine following the establishment of the first Jewish state. Adapted by Rula Jebreal from her own novel and somewhat – or so it would appear – autobiographical, the film recounts the life of Miral Shahin (Frieda Pinto), as she struggles for personal identity in a country rapidly looing its own.
Offering a broader context for the character of Miral, the story actually begins in 1947 with the establishment of a school for orphaned girls in Jerusalem and the introduction of both Miral’s parents and the film’s leading maternal figure, Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass).
From this point forward, the story hop, skips and jumps its way through time as the tale of Miral unfolds. Admittedly, retelling almost half a century of history is no meagre task, especially when the story comprises a handful of knotted threads plucked from within the broad and bloodied tapestry that is the long-standing Israeli-Palestine conflict. It’s an ambitious charge for a film that only runs for about a hundred minutes and Miral falls somewhat short.
To cover the numerous events and people who will shape Miral’s existence the film is forced into a brutal employment of economy. Sequences often begin mid-way through some unfolding and crucial moment, briefly addressed before the audience is zipped forward to the next relevant point. This becomes a running theme for the film as it advances rapidly through the ongoing political disputes, leaving it difficult to connect with the on-screen characters as we briefly glimpse only isolated moments from their lives, which are commonly offered up without pretext or motive.
To compensate for the skeletal plot that results, the film attempts to wring an emotional investment from the audience with heavy doses of achingly sentimental music, which cut-in swiftly after each poignant sequence, rendering all other sounds mute as the camera lingers tritely over some apparent aftermath. The overall effect is something that might be considered akin to residence in a mental institute, where arresting imagery is presented in pill form to be washed down with a long draught of luke-warm music. The problems, however, don’t end here.
Despite being set against the swirling sands of Palestine, the characters constantly switch between Arabic – the official language of Palestine – and English. Grantedly, English is widely spoken across the Palestinian territories, but to have families change between the two languages almost flippantly while addressing one another is jarring enough to ensure that the film will likely never whisk you an inch from your theatre seat. It’s a move which feels more like a capitulation to lazier western audiences. The assessment of such intentions is only crystallized further by the inclusion of familiar faces like Willem Dafoe and Vanessa Redgrave in frankly superlative, non-descript roles. It’s disappointing to see this sort of cynical prostration to viewing figures and a more ’general’ audience when covering a subject which demands, if nothing else, authenticity.
What makes this all rather annoying is the almost uniform quality of the acting. The cast has been excellently selected and individual performances are genuinely impressive. It’s frustrating to see a great cast squandered like this on a weak script and poor filmmaking when just a little more candour from the writer and a little more grace from the director would have drawn this film closer to the quality it so desperately aspires to.
I imagine that this appraisal will not be a view shared by all: as this is a film which strives with great – yet often misplaced – effort to be ‘important’, it‘s only reasonable that some people, convinced by all this gaudy grandstanding, will be inclined to feel how they‘re expected to. Nonetheless, Miral seems more interested in its own prestige than in the characters it seeks to portray. Pictures which set out to deal with complex political issues, resultant military conflicts and the helpless plight of those trapped therein are often those that find themselves draped in the most luxurious and favourable adjectives when the critics turn in their verdict.
Miral seems conspicuously aware of this trend as it force feeds it’s audience the political minutiae of one such extant – and incredibly sensitive – situation in trite and tiresome ‘shock moments’ that belie a latent conceit, which, in it’s disingenuous façade, trades honesty for spectacle. Schaubel desperately wants you to care about his characters, but not nearly as much as he wants you care about his film; I was moved by neither.