Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba star in George Miller’s latest, Three Thousand Years Of Longing – a bold, bittersweet, and bloody weird fairytale romance.
It still boggles some people’s minds that the man who made Mad Max: Fury Road also directed the Happy Feet movies and Babe: Pig In The City. Adding yet another transept to the broad church of George Miller’s filmography, Three Thousand Years Of Longing seems to be a chance to blow off steam in between the last Furiosa movie and the next one.
In this modern fantasy, Tilda Swinton plays Alithea Binnie, a divorced professor of narratology (the study of stories) who happens upon a doozy of a tale when she arrives in Istanbul for a conference. While cleaning an antique bottle in her hotel bathroom, she becomes the latest in a line of women to liberate a powerful Djinn who looks just like Idris Elba.
Jackpot, some of you are thinking – but Alithea’s studies tell her that there are only cautionary tales about wishing. Frustrated, the Djinn starts to tell his own life story, from the time of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba to the mid-19th century. And yes, it’s a cautionary tale about wishing, but it’s also a love story.
This may not be as explosive as his previous film, but with Miller at the helm, there’s no shortage of spectacle either. The key difference is that its epic stories are couched in a two-hander with Swinton and Elba in a hotel room. Despite encompassing eons of storytelling, it’s tonally a bit more in line with Truly Madly Deeply or the more recent Good Luck To You, Leo Grande.
Adapted from A.S. Byatt’s 1994 short story The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, the stories-within-the-story span from erotic scenes to battle sequences to period drama but the tale is always in the telling. Expressly, it’s building up the story of a being who has become entirely devoted to satisfying women’s deepest desires and has been (in his own words) “extravagantly unlucky” up until now.
Jackpot, some of you accidentally said out loud that time, and who can blame you – at a point where even romantic studio movies can feel a bit platonic and sexless, here’s one that’s as unapologetically horny and sensual as the title suggests, while also keeping up the more eccentric side of its otherworldly adult fantasy.
By design, the power dynamic between Swinton and Elba’s characters chemistry relies on frustration, with the savvy deferral of satisfaction on one side only prolonging the need for wish fulfilment on the other. Their unusual chemistry mounts as the world grows more apathetic to wonder throughout history until – like the genie out of the bottle – they grow to fill the available space.
But the real magic of this is how effortlessly Miller pulls it off. While its spritely runtime covers an awful lot of narrative ground, there are no wacky dream-logic leaps or self-conscious reprisals, just an extraordinary era-straddling tale told at face value to an initially sceptical listener. It’s visually stunning of course, but the striking sound design and editing also lend to the astonishingly immersive effect.
Additionally, where there’s some practical points to be scored from the theme of loneliness, given how it was both filmed and released in the wake of global lockdowns, Miller opts to maintain the timeless big-picture focus and makes the face-masked audience at Alithea’s conference are the only overt reference to the pandemic.
As others have remarked, it becomes a bit more freewheeling in the third act – like any good fairytale, it lands the moral of the story, but we’ll grant that it’s the only time the film looks a little ungainly in its ambitions. Imperfect though the climax is, it’s hard to begrudge such an otherwise intimate epic. It’s not the maximalist (Mad Maximalist?) film that the marketing suggests, but it doesn’t leave you wanting either.
Instead, Three Thousand Years Of Longing has all of the virtuoso touches we’ve come to expect from George Miller, but in a more low-key weirdness than the sensory overload of his previous film. As a serving of feature-length story time, it’s a funny, engrossing, meditative thing, whose bittersweet aftertaste may grow on you over time.
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