Seven years have passed since George Miller reinvigorated the action genre with the breathtaking world-building and chase sequences of Mad Max: Fury Road. After much anticipation, the Australian mastermind behind the blockbuster franchise has finally returned, and it is fair to say his latest work is somewhat out of left field.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is not the long-awaited fifth entry in the Mad Max series, but a self-funded adaptation of The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, a short story by A.S. Byatt. Miller, now 77, has capitalized on the triumphant success of his last film (Fury Road made almost $375 million worldwide and was nominated for 10 Oscars) to make a pure passion project, trading postapocalyptic chaos and crazy cars in the desert for spiritual reminiscence in a hotel room.
This latest chapter in Miller’s career is not altogether surprising, in the sense that his whole career has been surprising. Longing is just the 11th full-length feature he has directed in 44 years, suggesting a man who chooses his projects with great care. He could be called a franchise specialist; besides the gory Mad Max series, he has also created the Babe series, about a charming talking pig, and the Happy Feet films, where penguins dance and sing classic songs. Outside of that franchise framework, however, he has only helmed the medical drama Lorenzo’s Oil and the fantasy-screwball romp The Witches of Eastwick. Miller has run the gamut, providing something for everybody from young children to macho action junkies to highbrow critics. What unifies all of his work is his visual kineticism and his sense of wonder.
Even if a story is rooted in reality, his stylistic flourishes will make it seem as otherworldly as possible. Take the most simple premise he has worked with to date in Lorenzo’s Oil. As a former doctor, it is easy to see why Miller was drawn to the true story of two parents who fight to find a cure for their son’s rare blood disease. Other than that, it is a far cry from his usual fare. So how does he make it his own? How about enlarging the text of the diagnosis, superimposed with the father collapsing on a staircase like something out of German Expressionism? Miller’s restless eye turns what could be dry Oscar bait into operatic melodrama. For a director who has worked largely in commercial lanes, his imagination bursts off the screen, sometimes even seeming at odds with commercial sensibility.
It is the same uncompromising vision that torpedoed the success of his own Babe franchise. After writing and producing the first entry, which was a smash hit that earned seven Oscar nominations, he wrestled the director’s chair away from co-creator Chris Noonan and made Babe: Pig in the City, a dark, sophisticated sequel that moved the lovable pig from a farm to a bleak urban landscape full of frightening set design, hard life lessons and a clown routine sequence set to Italian opera that surely gave unsuspecting children nightmares.
The sequel failed to break even at the box office, and became more beloved by cinephiles than the families who it was marketed for. Sometimes his boundless creativity is simply too overboard to win people over; most of the time, however, he is able to capture the imagination of moviegoers of all ages.
Take his biggest successes: the entire Mad Max franchise and the oddity that is Happy Feet. The roving cameras that track the automotive insanity of the former feel akin to the capturing of the exhilarating ice sliding scene of the latter. Whether he is working in children’s fare or serious adult action, practical effects or CGI, his enthusiasm for the worlds he envisions never wavers.
The commercial success that has followed him, starting with his very first feature (the original Mad Max) seems to simply be an added bonus in the eyes of an Australian always on the outside of the Hollywood machine who has had notorious difficulties working with American studios. Miller is never a hired hand; he is almost always in charge of his visions from start to finish, and the connecting thread of his work is a passion to tell colorful stories.
This brings us to Three Thousand Years of Longing, which due to its pace, subject matter, and late-August release date, is unlikely to reap the big box office numbers Miller has achieved in the past– not that he may care too much. Longing stars Tilda Swinton as Alithea, a narratologist who is granted three wishes by a djinn (Idris Elba) in a Turkish hotel room. The structure allows Miller to dive into several short fables spanning generations and continents, as told by the djinn. It makes all too much sense that at this late stage in his career, Miller has made a film about the joy of storytelling itself, an avenue for him to use his technical wizardry to explore more of a vignette-based tale.
As the djinn recounts his past entanglements to Alithea, we are transported through various portals into the ancient Levant, seeing lavish depictions of unrequited love, traitorous sons of emperors, sex dungeons, and scientific miracles. Each feels like a brief chapter of an old illustrated storybook, a playful cinematic exercise not unlike other late-period auteur work of the Coen Brothers in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs or Wes Anderson in The French Dispatch.
But what is really different about Longing from Miller’s previous films is that it has an overarching sense of static. Each time a story closes, we return to the hotel room in Istanbul, where Swinton and Elba sit and chat in bathrobes. She is reluctant to make any wishes; his stories are examples of reasons that she has to make the wishes. And so they go, back and forth, back and forth, sitting in the hotel room, not racing across open deserts or sliding across ice.
This is a mode of restraint that Miller doesn’t typically employ. Even in the real world of Lorenzo’s Oil, characters did not sit and talk as much as cry and monologue at each other. The contrast with the vividness of the flashbacks creates a feeling of Miller sitting in a chair, facing out at the audience and showing off pages of this storybook. Elba and Swinton do give two of the best performances Miller has ever coaxed; their conversation is full of intelligence and warmth, where usually Miller’s characters are beholden to the overall scenery.
But it seems like Miller never really wants to go where the film ends up; when the narrative kicks into motion, Alithea wishes to romance the djinn, and the two embark on a short-lasting, awkward love affair. He rushes through the climax of the film almost as an afterthought, after a long period of table-setting. The film ends like a hazy, pleasant dream that you will always remember moments from. You may not fully grasp the meaning of it, but you may want to have it again some day.
Longing marks a curious chapter in Miller’s career. It might end up being remembered as one of his minor works, which is only fair considering it is smaller in scope than most of its predecessors. Whether due to COVID restrictions, or simply subject matter, it doesn’t reach the same eye-watering levels of spectacle he has achieved in the past.
Instead, it serves as a thoughtful pause, a deep breath before the soon-to-be-octogenarian tackles the stress of completing the next two Mad Max films. Whether or not it is a rousing success seems less important than the fact that Miller is still making films that he sets out to make on his own terms, with charm and passion.