There are filmmakers with an innate control of the medium, an ability to tell stories visually so effortlessly and intuitively that you never notice the strain. Julian Schnabel is not one of those filmmakers. With Miral, he has now gone four-for-four on movies based on real-life stories, all of them projects that the director clearly has no tiny amount of passion for, and all of which told in four dissimilar but equally halting & uncertain visual styles that leave me, for one, wanting to grab the director and shake him back and forth, shouting, "Yes! I know what you're getting at! So just go and do it already and stop being such an amateur about it!" There's such a tentativeness about his work: it's undeniably evident that the painter-turned-cineaste has ideas about what he wants his movies to say, and even how he wants them to say those things, but either because of a failure of resolve or nerve, he can't quite make the jump from idea to execution, and his projects all end up in the same half-baked valley that gives one a rather itchy, unsettled feeling in a way that a flat-out unsuccessful movie could never have done.

Miral is a lightly fictionalised retelling of the childhood and adolescence of Palestinian writer Rula Jebreal, who not-at-all coincidentally is presently dating Schnabel. Though, as the titular character informs us right at the start, this isn't just her story, but the story in part or in full of three other Palestinian women, beginning with the historical figure Hind al-Husseini (Hiam Abbass), who in 1948 founded a school and orphanage for Palestinian girls; then briefly touching on Nadia (Yasmine Elmasri) and Fatima (Ruba Blal), two women broken by the culture they live in, united by Nadia's little daughter Miral (Yolanda El Karam), whom Fatima cares for after Nadia's death; and then, the great bulk of the movie advances us to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when teenage Miral (Freida Pinto, who never entirely stops looking more Indian than Arab, though she admittedly bears a striking resemblance to Jebreal) falls in love with with PLO leader Hani (Omar Metwally), and spends some effort trying to help in the fight against Israel, slowingly learning from al-Husseini, her father (Alexander Siddig), and her cousin's Jewish girlfriend (Stella Schnabel, the director's daughter) that a hard-line approach to life isn't necessarily the best or happiest way to be.

This is Schnabel's second more-or-less political film, after Before Night Falls and its study of a politically-sensitive Cuban poet; that film suffered a bit from not having an entirely clear sense of its own status as a political statement, but it's not remotely so muddy as Miral, which tries to be three things all at once: a loving tribute to al-Husseini and her politically agnostic attempts to make life better for downtrodden Palestinians; a saucy, shit-stirring attempt by a New York-born Jewish filmmaker to produce an outright pro-Palestine movie (no accident, I deem, that the financing for Miral came from four countries, none of them the United States); and a coming-of-age drama about a young girl who learns that diplomacy and peace are maybe better things than revolutionary violence, however sexy revolution looks from outside. Sometimes, these impulses sit awkwardly atop one another: the film lionises the mostly ineffectual Oslo Accords, presenting them as the big emotional climax to the whole film, while smarmily noting in an ending title card that the Accords ended up having no particular effect. "Because of them damn Jews" the film does not say, though it's a sentiment unmistakably present from its absence, if you follow me.

None of this ends up cohering within itself, and the movie, though it self-evidently has a Message about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, makes virtually no effort to clearly explain what that Message is. "The Palestinians are people too", maybe, but that's awfully milquetoast for a film that talks so punk; "boy, my girlfriend sure is amazing; take a bow, sweetie!" is likelier, but I feel quite a cynic for even suggesting it. Politically incoherent movies are nothing new, of course, and Miral wouldn't be that big of a problem in this regard except that politics are so obviously its first and foremost raisin d'Γͺtre. There are a lot of points where Jebreal's script grinds to a halt for several minutes to have people discuss some fine point of revolutionary policy; in one tremendously clumsy moment, Miral and Hani discuss the relative merits of violent resistance vs. non-violent appeals to reason and international opinion while making out against the side of a car.

And that, rather than any thematic instability, is the real problem with Miral: it's simply a poorly-handled movie with a script that's made up almost entirely of bland talking, and a director whose only thought for how to dramatically spice up that script is with shake, handheld close-ups that call unnecessary attention to themselves while adding virtually nothing valuable to our sense of the characters or their actions. And this is where that aspect of Julian Schnabel I was talking about shows up; the one where he has clear thoughts about what he wants, and not about how to get to what he wants. It's meant to be intimate, direct, personal; the very pointed use of onscreen text to tell us where and when and who is the subject of this part of the movie or that is clearly designed to stress the film's historical continuity and its depiction of a society rather than just one, or even four, women. But the divide between this being achingly obvious as the "point" of Miral, and this being the actual effect of Miral, is a huge divide.

Not helping matters is the general inhumanity of it all; despite a packed cast, Miral is just too busy for Schnabel to do more than set the camera in front of the actors and pray that they bring something to it. Vanessa Redgrave's hugely irrelevant cameo in the first scene is a perfect example of a game actor being wildly misdirected, and her performance, a ragged bundle of jangling nerves and weird vocal tics, evokes nothing but a sense of wonderment that a gifted performer could be that unfocused. Later on, Abbass, Siddig, and Willem Dafoe (as al-Husseini's American friend and - possibly, the film implies more than it states - her ex-lover) are all onscreen at once, and I distinctly remember the thought, as crystal-clear as a mountain stream: "I really love all three of those actors. I wonder why none of them are doing anything even marginally interesting."

That is the problem with all of Miral, a movie locked inside its own head, trying desperately to get out. A three-handed conversation about the fate of Palestine between Hiam Abbass, Alexander Siddig, and Willem Dafoe ought to be interesting, just as a story that in patches seems to state that, "all things considered, terrorism is probably a viable way for Palestinians to make their points" should at least be interesting, whether it's even a little bit morally justifiable or not. And yet, the undernourished and overworked visuals, and the even more overworked "let's explain everything and then explain it again" narrative arc seemingly conspire to make sure it's not interesting at all. Miral is not, it must be said, a "bad" movie, but I almost can't imagine a worse, or at least less-engaging, version of the same subject, and that, too me, is much the greater sin.

And nothing out of any of this can even start to justify the Bizarro World choice of ending the whole thing with Tom Waits's "Down There By the Train", but maybe I am just not as awesomely cool as I'd have to be for that to make any damn sense at all.