A splendid tribute to storytelling’s limitless powers, Three Thousand Years of Longing sets George Miller’s singularly intense imagination free to play.
Of course, this Australian maverick never makes films any other way. Not one to tamp down his ambitions so much as surrender to them entirely — whether those ambitions involve making penguins dance, pigs talk, or flame-throwing electric guitarists swing Cirque-style between fast-moving war rigs — Miller crafts dementedly high-octane fantasies with an engineer’s precision. The magic of his movies lies in the vivid profusion of detail and movement that accompany his frequently bizarre narratives. Together, these wondrous, tactile elements create invigoratingly vast, spatially realized worlds for his stories to inhabit.
And though his latest (in theaters August 26) finds the director operating in a more strangely intimate and emotional key than usual, fully intact within this ersatz modern fairy-tale is the sense of expressionistic genius that’s governed Miller’s past work, from the dystopian, death-defying Mad Max franchise to his peculiar family fare (Happy Feet, Babe). As if particularly seeking sanctuary from the savage, sun-scorched wastelands of Mad Max: Fury Road and its upcoming prequel Furiosa, or at least refreshment in between, Three Thousand Years of Longing plunges headfirst into a lush fantasy of wish fulfillment.
Tilda Swinton plays “narratologist” Alithea Binnie, who specializes in telling stories about stories. Beyond that, she believes she has not only heard all the old tales but can delineate their shared ideas and deeper meaning. That may well be the case, given that she’s thrown herself entirely into her field since the failure of a past marriage took with it the possibility of a more traditional domesticity. She’s fine with that, she insists. Motherhood might have tethered Alithea, and a brilliant mind like hers requires freedom to roam.
Having given her life over to narratology, this lonesome academic has arrived at another sort of impasse, believing as she does that ancient mythologies have been displaced in the popular consciousness by scientific discoveries and technological advancement. With this recent development in human history, for Alithea as much as anyone, a sense of wonder — in the impossible, the revelatory, even the unexpected — has largely gone out of the equation.
Drawn to Istanbul for a conference in which she discusses this subject, Alithea discovers an antique bottle at the Grand Bazaar and, honoring an age-old trope, gives it a rub back at her hotel room. Out pops a massive and smoldering Djinn (Idris Elba) to grant her heart’s deepest desires, as is customary, through three wishes. Alithea knows better (or so she says) and refuses to ask the Djinn for anything at all. “This wishing is a hazardous business,” she grouses, and he agrees. So, instead, the pair don plush bathrobes — once the Djinn shrinks down to a size more suited to the room’s confines — as he regales Alithea with fantastic stories of his past millennia.
Adapted from A.S. Byatt’s “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” Three Thousand Years of Longing — co-written by Miller and Augusta Gore — is partly made up of these tales, which Miller and his team conjure as a dreamlike caravan of dazzling images, all in procession as if plucked by the Djinn’s words, and Alithea’s willingness to hear them, from some long-ago boundary between history and myth. Remembered and recontextualized through their dialogue, the stories transport both of them to gilded palace grounds and desert battles that stain the sands red.
Though his stories more universally illustrate the intoxicating nature of storytelling and the role it can play in shaping people’s lives, the Djinn speaks especially of women, whose desires he’s spent a long, long time attempting to satisfy in exchange for his own freedom. (Here, the casting of Elba reveals itself to be the film’s masterstroke; even with pointed ears and an aura of digital trickery that makes him tower over Swinton, the actor conveys such overwhelming sensuality and pathos as to hold the audience in his thrall.)
That these stories end in his repeat confinement is a given — “I have been extravagantly unlucky,” the Djinn intones, Elba’s deep voice tinged weary with regret — but in each instance, he spins an extravagantly sensual tale of love, ambition, and betrayal. The Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum) savored the Djinn’s magically augmented ministrations until seductive King Solomon (Nicolas Mouawad) came along. In Ottoman Empire days, Gulten (Ece Yüksel), a concubine in Suleiman’s court, desired the love of a prince (Matteo Bocelli) and its attendant social perks above all else. Many years later, the brilliant Zefir (Burcu Gölgedar), unhappily married to a merchant, longed for companionship from an intellectual equal, only to rage against the lack of control she felt even in her relationship with the Djinn.
In each of these tales, Miller summons some enchanting sights and sounds, from a man whose head turns demonic before dissolving into a nest of teeming spiders to a tableau of lounging concubines whose bodies appear as decadent and decorative as the tapestries of palatial wealth surrounding them. Three Thousand Years of Longing was originally conceived as a globe-trotting adventure and set to film on location in Istanbul and London before the pandemic necessitated its downsizing. Miller instead built or virtually replicated the film’s more lavish settings from his native Australia, with scenes of Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar being shot in front of a green screen. All the visual effects on display, if distracting in their CGI overload, contribute to Miller’s uniquely graphic style, with the director leaning into the artifice and capturing a wistful, idealized quality from the more exotic locales.
In league with Fury Road cinematographer John Seale, Miller manipulates frame rates in these stories to add another layer of visual variety to the proceedings. Knowingly, these sequences place the audience in the position of spectator, with the settings of the Djinn’s stories occupying a strange, chimerical state of unreality. As Alithea listens, they materialize out of thin air before vanishing back into nothing, existing only as long as they must to convey the Djinn’s meaning. But as they unfurl Alithea finds herself moved, and certainly aroused, in ways that surprise her.
That’s because at the heart of this romantically grand “chamber piece” — if one can use such a term to describe a meta-meditation on storytelling that, in accordance with that theme, steadfastly surges beyond its initial two-actors-in-a-room setup — is a passionate declaration, and as well a sincere defense, of the innate human desire for fantasy, in all its liberating potential. For all its imaginative detours into mythically laden memories of the Djinn’s storybook past, Three Thousand Years of Longing finds its main dramatic heat in the off-kilter, amusingly charged interplay between Elba’s freshly unbottled Scheherazade and Swinton’s savvy, aloof scholar.
Gradually, Alithea does offer the Djinn wishes to grant; she makes her decisions cautiously, with a clarity that flows as much from her professional investment in storytelling as it does from her interest in the Djinn and the stimulating sensations that his arrival reawakens in her.
Where Three Thousand Years of Longing goes from there is more sentimental than one might expect, in a way that boxes in the initially frisky and energetic lead performances. Some of the film’s more curious decisions, from a run-in with airport security to encounters with Alithea’s nosy neighbors, connect the film to our present global moment (ditto for a face mask that Alithea dons while in transit) while detracting from the film’s sense of lingering wonder. More schematic than subversive by its finale, the film doesn’t sustain the vibrant image-making of its early going.
Still, what’s on display in Three Thousand Years of Longing is often eccentric and erotically charged enough to mark the film as a rarity in today’s rigorously depersonalized, artistically exsanguinated blockbuster landscape. Miller is a skilled storyteller, the film reminds us, and though this outing feels like more of a lark than his more operatic action epics, his vision emphasizes that devotion to storytelling as a universal art form. Myths bring us meaning, the film affirms, and by continuing to relate them to one another, we connect more deeply to what makes us human. That’s as indulgent but incisive a rationale for Miller’s no-holds-barred approach to artistry as any he’s laid out to date.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is in theaters August 26.